Spinning dysmorphic stigma

Awareness of dysfunctional perceptions of body image within ballet culture in Western Australia has been silenced amid the noise of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This comes despite performers from Western Australian ballet studios increasingly calling out backwards practices hidden within the art.

Former Mystic Ballet dancer Jacinta Horton said the performance industry continues to place undue pressure on dancers to slim down.

Jacinta Horton graduated from Katherine Mantle Performing Arts Academy in Perth. Photo: Supplied.

“There is more of a pressure on performers’ aesthetics and less of a focus on being fit, which is where it needs to be,” she said.

She said past dance instructors have directly told her to lose weight despite her being fit for performance.

“When I had just moved away from home, I was pulled aside by my dance instructor at the time and was told I needed to slim down,” she said.

“They said all the fluffy words around it, but they basically told me I was too fat”

Ms Horton said these practices are damaging to young dancers’ perceptions of themselves and the world surrounding them.

“These attitudes basically tell dancers right from a young age that they have to be slim to get a job,” she said.

Ms Horton quit ballet in 2019 due to the constant pressure on her body image. Photo: Supplied.

Clinical Psychologist Raffaella Salvo said this constant pressure on dancers to be slim has significant psychological impacts on a younger performer’s sense of self.

“This pressure would make any person feel very uncomfortable in their own body,” she said.

“The health of the body is highly correlated and linked with the sense of psychological self as well, particularly in young people,”

WA Academy of Performing Arts Dance Coordinator Susan Peacock said body shape remains as a key feature in traditional performing arts.  

“Classical ballet is an art form that has very strict kinds of expectations in terms of what your body should look like,” she said.

Former Ausdance National President Cheryl Stock said ballet dancers are pressured to be “super slim” because body shape was a part of the art form.

“Body image matters because it is an aesthetic art form, so people like to see strong, fit and pleasing bodies on stage,” she said.

Professor Cheryl Stock

Professor Stock said though this remains as an expectation, the performance industry is slowly progressing to focus more on how the body moves as opposed to its shape.

“Body image is important, but now it’s more about the kinetics,” she said.

“How the body moves and what pleasure you give the audience through incredible movement is starting to become more prevalent.”

Ms Peacock said WAAPA was implementing performance psychology units to help build up their dancers’ resilience and self-confidence in the face of these pressures.

“WAAPA does try to prepare the students, and empower them, to deal with these issues if and when they come up, once they are working in the professional realm,” she said.