Back in the mid 1990's I first began getting interested in public health. One of my first areas of interest was around eating disorders, especially among female athletes. Many of you may remember the book that sparked my interest, "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes".
This book focused on body weight/image pressures among female athletes in elite gymnastics and figure skating. The book is heartbreaking, following several athletes along paths of injury and disordered eating...many of which lead to permanent injury or death. Even though the book is almost 15 years old, I sometimes wonder if we've even learned anything from those stories.
On NBC's Today Show this morning, Jenifer Ringer was a guest. She is a New York City Ballet principal dancer, currently playing the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. Her name has been all over the blogosphere in the past week after a critic for The New York Times Dance Section wrote that "she looked as if she'd eaten one sugar plum too many".
In response to the outrage over his comments, the critic (Alastair Macaulay) published a second editorial five days later called "Judging the Bodies in Ballet". His primary argument- judging the body is fair game in ballet. "If you want to make your body irrelevant to criticism, do not choose ballet as a career". And I would assume that he would argue that the same goes for gymnastics or figure skating, where the body is actually part of the art form. But if that is true, how does the cycle of pressure and expectation ever get broken? Are you asking for criticism if you choose to participate in one of these sports?
In public health, we often make much more headway by changing laws/policies versus changing any one individual's opinion. In that spirit, there have been some systemic changes that have made these types of sports safer for young female athletes. For example, a minimum age limit for Olympic competition was enforced (even though some countries have cheated), hoping that it will help with wear and tear on young bodies that can not yet handle the intense training. Changes have been made to make the equipment safer. For example, after many serious injuries occurred on the women's vault in gymnastics, their pommel horse was replaced with a "vaulting table" that was more appropriately sized and padded.
So minimum ages and safer equipment are wonderful, but what will help with the unrealistic body image problem? In her Today Show interview, Jenifer shared that the New York City Ballet has all types of bodies on the roster, including hers that is more "womanly". I guess that's a good start. If ballet companies can model variety and acceptance and strength for their audiences (including aspiring ballerinas), that can begin to change perceptions of what is "normal". And the outrage shown by readers of the critic's comments. I guess that's a good start too.
Shame on you Mr. Macaulay for picking on the Sugar Plum Fairy.