It takes a very strong person to recognize, push through, and overcome that previous mindset
By: Saskia Wodarczak
‘Body image’ is a term we hear so much these days. It’s how you feel about your body when you look in the mirror and how you picture your body in your mind. Every day, people all over the world, men and women alike, are influenced by others and society to try and better or to change their body to fit a certain standard.
Let’s make one thing very clear: your body does not define your value or who you are. There are so many factors that influence body image, such as peers, family, the media, and even after school activities. Since this is a rant of sorts, we’re going to look at ballet really quickly for some more personal context. Bear with me here.
I did ballet for around eleven years, and let me tell you - being a little girl in ballet takes a toll on how you see yourself. Ballerinas are swayed by society to believe that they must look a certain way. They’re shaped into an ideal, and are pressured to fit into a certain mould: slim, with a long neck, medium torso, and slender arms and legs. Many ballet dancers suffer from anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, as well as other eating disorders. All of that, just to fit into that box that we, as a society, have created. Ballerinas do what they can to fit that ideal, even if it means greatly lessening their nutritional intake to become that ideal.
As a little girl in ballet, to some degree you’re striving to become a professional dancer some day. Starting in the second grade, at the age of around seven, I was being intensely moulded into an ideal that I didn't even know existed. Whenever I would come home from dance, I'd look at myself in the mirror and I’d think something along the lines of, “I’m really not the correct form to be a ballerina… I’m not skinny enough.” Right off the bat, that is not a good sign. I'd compare my body to those of the other girls in the class.They were all closer to the societal ideal, so why wasn't I? Was I doing something wrong? They were tall and willowy, with long necks, long arms, long legs, and slender figures. I, on the other hand, was, as Laura Ingalls Wilder said best: “as round and dumpy as a little French horse.” Obviously, genetics play a huge role in how one looks, but that didn’t compute to my younger self, and because of this mindset, the way I saw myself decreased dreadfully. I felt, and a lot of the time still feel, insecure in my own skin. It’s crazy that something that seems to be a harmless after-school activity for children can cause so many problems in the future. As young dancers, we were told certain things to maintain a certain standard, and Heaven forbid we broke that. Our minds were influenced at a young age, and what we were told then stuck with us, even into adulthood.
Unfortunately, not all we were told is healthy, and it takes a very strong person to recognize, push through, and overcome that previous mindset.
Circling back, a relevant example of a common beauty standard we see in the media includes the famous “thigh gap.” Apparently, having a thigh gap makes you more beautiful according to societal standards. The other common standard (which has also cropped up throughout history) is an hourglass figure — a small waist, wide hips, and a good sized bust. I’ve seen people try to change their figures to fit the standard. There’s workouts on YouTube literally called “hourglass workouts,” and not to say that I haven’t fallen in that trap, because I would be a hypocrite if I said I haven’t. But I did recognize that it was just another beauty standard and while it is a standard that my body fits naturally, I shouldn’t change my body to make myself fit that standard even more. Social media also plays a huge role in body image. You can argue with me and disagree with this written rant of mine, but bluntly, I think that social media is sometimes rather crass and quite possibly the most toxic thing for body image. Take from that what you will.
I quit ballet just before the eighth grade, and it was a giant emotional, physical, and mental shock. Suddenly, there was no more ideal to fit, and I discovered that for the past eleven years, I'd been moulded into someone that wasn't even me. I was incredibly thin, and because I'd just started high school, I felt that I was too thin. I gained weight, then lost it, and went back to the ideal that had been pressed into me for over a decade. From there, it went up and down, and still to this day, it is incredibly difficult to find a healthy balance with exercise and a solid diet.
Cut to today, almost seven years later. Going back to dance is definitely something that I have considered doing. However, I have learned that I must ensure that I recognize that it can become unhealthy quickly and that I need to look out for that. It is a fine line between being healthy in a balanced way, and tricking yourself into thinking you actually are.
Now, overcoming a negative body image is a different beast altogether. I am a strong advocate for isolophilia — regrouping for myself, ensuring that there is no outside judgement, re-evaluating any obstacles or determining triggers as to why I might be feeling that foreboding sense of doom towards how I look. Truth is, there is no one way to overcome this mindset — it is very much a “to each their own” solution. If you came to this article hoping to find a solution, I’m very sorry that I can’t help more than by simply stating that you’re not alone. I get it; it’s a constant battle and a shift in mindset that might even go so far as to make you feel mutinous for a little while. However, once that hurrah dissipates, it’s still really hard to get out of a rut.
With that example aside, body image in and of itself is both mental and emotional — the former being how we picture our bodies ideally, and the latter being how we feel about what we see. Naturally, what we see and how we feel about it go hand in hand. A healthy body image is being able to view yourself without wishing you could change something, and putting that wish into action for that reason and that reason alone. It is hard to determine whether you’re changing because you feel as though you have to,or because you want to for healthy reasons. At the end of the day, mindsets are hard to reset and once again, it takes a very, very, strong person to do so.