On the mommy blog, Stoller Derby, Paula Bernstein wrote yesterday about how excited she was to take her daughter to the New York City Ballet’s performance of the Nutcracker at the Lincoln Center. Her excitement was tempered, however, by Alistair Macauley’s review in the New York Times which took an unnecessary jab at the lead dancer’s body: “Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many,” Macauley cracked.
Jenifer Ringer is a ballet dancer who has struggled with her weight and left professional dancing for a time because her self-esteem had plummeted due to the unrealistic demands she put upon herself. With the encouragement of her teacher she returned to ballet and wound up being handpicked by Twyla Tharp to portray the lead in The Beethoven Seventh. Having battled her demons already, one hopes Jenifer Ringer is equipped to deal with insensitive comments like these and that they won’t send her spiraling into a life-threatening eating disorder as they might someone less experienced than herself.
Dancing and modelling are both professions that seem to expect rare thinness in their subjects but most of the time these states are not natural but ruthlessly self-imposed. When Canadian prima ballerina Karen Kain was asked about her favourite part of retirement, she replied “being able to eat more than one meal a day.”
Much has also been written on body dysmorphia and eating disorders among fashion models. In this space, I have explored the cases of Crystal Renn, and Sara Ziff whose insider interviews among her fellow models reveal anorexia to be more the norm in modelling than the exception.
In many of these cases, what started the descent into a life-threatening disorder was a simple comment, not unlike the one weilded by the arts critic in the New York Times. In Sara’s interview above, one model confessed that her anorexia was triggered when a photographer tapped her on the ass and suggested “you need to lose a little weight.”
For actress Portia de Rossi, her anorexia climaxed with the actress weighing 82 pounds and contracting osteoperosis (brittle bones usually seen in elderly women), and was set off when a costume designer huffed, “nobody told me she was a size 8!” when she couldn’t fit into the size four suits provided for a photo shoot.
America prides itself on being a free country and freedom of the press must remain paramount. To me Macauley’s comment borders on slanderous, however, because the remark has nothing to do with Ringer’s performance. The fact that it’s a man making the judgment brings out the “how dare he?” in me. How dare anyone scrutinize a woman’s body that way? Let’s put Alastair up on stage in a pair of tights and see how he feels about himself. Stick to critiquing the performance, in other words… Be professional. If these critics, both men and women knew the potentially life-threatening harm they could be causing with a callous comment, I’m fairly certain they’d exercise more restraint. Irreparable physical and psychic damage notwithstanding, these critics should stick to the topic and provide information on a need-to-know basis and be held accountable to such standards by their editors and publishers.
The fact that dancers have to dance in a mirrored room clad only in skin-tight leotards is a determining factor in the prevalence of eating disorders within the trade. I used to dance as a child and when I returned as an adult to take some recreational classes, the school had a policy about comfort in clothing and it was clear that comfort in one’s own skin (avoiding physical self-criticism) as well as in the choice of garments was a leading factor in their decision. They had seen too many girls lose their self-esteem when faced with the unforgiving image of their changing bodies encased in tights which hid nothing.
The Endangered Species Summit in March of which I’ve written previously, seeks to provide solutions to this societal issue of women being taught to hate their own bodies. In a contest called Loved Bodies, Big Ideas the question is posed:
What is one bold action that could make the world truly value the diversity of women and girls’ bodies?
If you feel you have the answer and are willing to present it in front of a panel of experts at the Summit in New York, today is the last day to enter! Submit your most original and thrilling idea in 500 words or less to Contest Manager, Shirley Kailas (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your age, contact details, and any organizational affiliation. If the judges choose your entry as one of the top 3, all of your travel expenses will be covered. Be aware that, due to cost, geographical limitations are in place.
Let’s take some action and help cure society of its sickness and obsession with judging women’s bodies. I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments section, too.
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