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Developing and maintaining a healthy body image in dance

Dance is an art form that requires strength, grace, and flexibility. As dancers, our bodies are the instruments we use to create and perform, but the emphasis on body image in the dance world can lead to negative feelings about our bodies, affecting our self-esteem and performance. What happens when our performance is lacking? We’re quick to look for something to blame, and in most cases, it’s our bodies for not living up to the high and sometimes unrealistic expectations we have of them.

A big part of our job as successful dancers is to assess our bodies. Doing that without berating them? You’d struggle to find someone who hasn’t. Learning to love the bodies that we have been given can sometimes take work. I’m here to share the tools and tips I’ve learned to help you support your child in their dance career.

What is body image?

As a dancer and teacher, I’ve witnessed many of my peers and students experience difficulties with their body image. It’s not surprising, considering how much time we spend in front of a mirror. Add social media to the mix, and you've got a recipe that results in overwhelming pressure to feel like we need to be “perfect.” It’s important to know that “All individuals, regardless of gender, can suffer from body image issues.” 

Our body image doesn’t always necessarily mean what’s physically in front of the mirror. “Body image” has been described as a few things other things, too, including: 

  • How you imagine yourself to look in your mind.

  • What you believe to be true about your appearance (including assumptions and generalizations).

  • How you mentally feel about your body, including how tall you are, your body shape, and your weight.

  • How you physically feel about your body and control it as you move.

As mentors, what responsibility do we have when it comes to body image?

In my dance career alone, I’ve met many teachers and coaches who forget that they “...have a hand in shaping the young minds in front of them.” If you’re reading this, I'm certain you’ve had a bad boss at some point during your career. Sure, they have great work experience, but that should not grant them a free pass to a management role. Similarly, there’s a common misconception in dance where people think if you’ve had an illustrious career, you’ll be an even better teacher. It’s vital to remember that there’s a lot we can get better at and learn from when it comes to impacting a student’s mental health.

So, how can we help our kids cultivate a positive body image in and out of the studio?

Fostering a positive body image can be complicated and definitely not an easy feat. We embrace our bodies when they serve us well, but we are quick to point the finger when things don’t go as expected. For teens and pre-teens, it is absolutely normal to experience more hormonal and emotional changes, and it’s important for us as mentors to help guide them through this process while celebrating their strengths. 

Below are some tips I’ve found to be useful with my students.

Dance mom
  1. Encourage a social media purge. 
    Social media can be a great platform for staying connected with the dance community and finding inspiration. Still, it can also be a source of toxicity when it comes to body image. There is a lot of pressure for our kids to have a thinner waist, a smaller nose, or to be more flexible. In fact, the list is endless, and as natural competitors, they’re even more vulnerable to feeling inadequate to other dancers who seem to have the "perfect" body. In a recent article, I read that many students feel social media has been “detrimental” to how they feel about their appearance. 

    To maintain a healthy body image, it's important for those who use social media to filter out anything negative or makes them feel bad about themselves. I often encourage my kids to unfollow accounts that promote unhealthy body standards or make them feel inferior and instead follow accounts that promote body positivity. As parents and teachers, we can choose playlists featuring artists who represent self-love and confidence. One of my personal favorites is Lizzo.

  2. Help to create connections and encourage your children to surround themselves with people who build them up.
    The people you surround yourself with can greatly impact your self-esteem and body image, so remember that this also goes for your child. Lead by example and nurture friendships and relationships with people who build you up and support you. Help your children to find friends and mentors who encourage them to be their best selves and appreciate them for who you are, not just for how they look. A support system can help your child stay positive and confident in their body, even when facing challenges or setbacks in their dance career.

    Something really useful to me when internalizing negative thoughts is to seek reassurance from people I trust. Ask them, “Is there any truth to this thought?” Sometimes saying it out loud can help you to realize that it’s not serving you, but it’s also comforting to know we’re not alone.

  3. Wear dance clothes that make your child feel comfortable and good about themself.
    The clothes my students wear can greatly impact how they feel about their bodies. Wearing dance clothes that fit well and make them feel comfortable and confident can help them feel more positive about their body. 

    As dance teachers and coaches, we can try to be more flexible with dress codes and understand every single one of our students has a different body type. It’s important to remember that how we see a student doesn’t always reflect what they see in the mirror. Although your studio may have a dress code, try to recommend options that include multiple fits and styles. Empower your students by letting them choose an outfit that works for them. 

    For young performers who are too intimated to speak up to their coaches about their boundaries, “Dancing with the Stars” alum Ashly Costa had some good advice: “Just do it! Pull them aside and just talk to them. I promise that most of the time, they’ll say, ‘Okay, let’s see if we can try to fix this to make you feel more comfortable.’”

  4. Help your child to practice “only compare you to you.”
    If your child is struggling to feel good about their body, remind them to think about what it has done for them. How did they perform a month ago, a year ago, and at the start of their career? Hopefully, they’ll be pretty amazed when they think about how far they’ve come. It’d be disadvantageous to compare apples to oranges, so why should they compare themselves to a peer with a different body, background, and skillset? 

  5. Focus on health, not weight.
    Unfortunately, the goal of living a healthy lifestyle is often confused with a preoccupation with weight. Dancing can be one of the biggest offenders in the fixation with maintaining a low weight; however, we should be aware of students thinking health equals digits on a scale. 

    As parents, we can set aside time to include our children in meal planning. Let them take responsibility for some meal times, but be sure to incorporate a reward in there for all of their hard work.

Self-love is paramount

The most important thing I’ve learned on my dance journey is to treat myself with the love and respect I’d hope for from my students and children. Thank yourself for reading this and taking the time to help empower your child to love their body, inside and out. 

I’m always here to chat, and I’d love to hear from you!

Love, Andrea xoxo
March 19, 2023

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