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Race and Ballet's "Skinny Culture"

We need to talk about that New York Times article “What is a Ballet Body,” written by Gia Kourlas. Published on March 3rd, 2021, this article epitomizes the slow progress and tone-deafness of this Eurocentric ballet world. The fight for body inclusivity and the fight against racism in ballet are inextricably linked. However, that perspective is missing from the quote-on-quote progressive conversations in ballet. In an article presented in one of the most notable newspapers in the world, where are the BIPOC voices?

The Balanchine aesthetic (skinny with long legs, a short torso, a long neck, a small head, narrow but flexible hips, and skin that is as pale as a freshly peeled apple) is still as pervasive and problematic now as it was 70 years ago. Kourlas’s article, however, approaches the subject matter as if dancers’ changing relationship to weight, body image, and unhealthy physical standards is a relatively new concept. True: dancers have struggled to varying degrees to maintain their athleticism during the COVID-19 pandemic. True: there has been more attention on the unhealthy “skinny culture” in ballet over the last ten to fifteen years that has resulted in moderate progress. False: this is not a fight spearheaded by white women. Looking at this article, though, you’d think otherwise.

Kourlas asks a great question: "How can body image, a fraught topic for any female dancer, no matter her size, be a source of strength rather than agony?" The answer, for Kourlas, is perhaps found in the reprieve from typical company life caused by the COVD-19 global pandemic. Only, there have been dancers asking these questions about ballet bodies and beauty standards way before this. The article, like the ballet industry at large, ignores the generations of BIPOC dancers who have endured physical and mental abuse to achieve an aesthetic that (let’s be honest) most people don’t naturally fit into. What’s more, it ignores the eurocentrism (and at this point white supremacy) of this standard that has actively prohibited black and brown dancers from excelling in professional ballet careers. The language Kourlas uses also feeds into the modified “skinny culture” vocabulary. In regards to New York City Ballet principal dancer Lauren Lovette’s comment on the pressure to achieve a ballet line, Kourlas wrote,

“In ballet, line isn’t just about the body’s shape on a stage. It has to do with the body’s overall harmonious outline: how, from head to toe, limbs and torso create the illusion of continuous reach and length. Weight, with its bulk and bulges — including, yes, breasts — plays its part and can interfere with a seamless, sculptural quality.”

Let’s be clear. Being an artistic athlete with any kind of body does not interfere with anything. We are not twigs onstage. We are people and should look like people. Yes, the physical demands of ballet technique do alter the body in ways that “lengthen” certain areas, but no two bodies are the same. The fact that ballet continues to prize homogenous skinniness is toxic. The fact that Lauren Lovette felt pressure to stay at a measly 94 pounds for so long, despite being an elite athlete at the top of her profession, is problematic. The fact that former New York City Ballet soloist Kathryn Morgan faced body discrimination and mental abuse at Miami City Ballet, despite being forthright about her thyroid condition, is problematic. The fact that Chloe Freytag had to break her Miami City Ballet contract because of pressure to lose weight is...problematic.

The fact that physical therapist Marika Mulnar is quoted as saying that some dancers in quarantine “[have] gained five pounds, but they look fantastic" misses the bigger issue. Five pounds doesn't make or break someone's athleticism or streamlined aesthetic. The pressure to fit into this skinny, Eurocentric standard still remains and continues to take a physical and mental toll on dancers. It makes no room for other artistic athletic physiques more commonly (but not exclusively) found with black and brown dancers, who are equally beautiful, powerful, and capable.

How does all of this information exist in the same article? Because ballet exists as an enduring contradiction with aesthetics, paradigms, and values that match. This industry can do better, and those writing about the industry have to be at the forefront of thoughtful progressive conversations. I’m not out here to bash Kourlas. I’m saying that this is not the whole conversation. Racism and “skinny culture” in ballet are inextricably linked. When we don’t acknowledge this, we don’t get to the heart of the matter (the heart of the matter being white supremacy in ballet). If we don’t do that, then we’re just talking without making any real progress. It’s uncomfortable, but if you’re not willing to be uncomfortable, you’re not willing to change.

I know what it’s like to look in the mirror and hate what I see, to wish my glutes were smaller, my thighs were narrower, my chest even flatter. I know what it’s like to go into a costume fitting and be the only one who can’t get the tutu over my hips. I know what it’s like to be considered curvy in the studio, only to be around my family and be considered a stick. I have been in a corps of women told to “take it easy” on Thanksgiving, because we “sounded like a herd of elephants.” I’ve been told I need to “appear conditioned” and extended an offer for a weight-loss regimen should I chose to change my physique. It took me a while to understand that it wasn't just about being skinny, it was about not being muscular, about being this flat stick of a person. It was about erasing my Black DNA.

So, when BIPOC dancers are cynical about your “Black Lives Matter” statements, this is why. Do we matter when we’ve been fighting for decades to make ballet more inclusive on all fronts? Do we matter when we are scholars researching the origins of this artform, pre skinny culture? If so, bring us to the table. Better yet, come sit at our table. You’re invited to sit here and listen. This goes beyond one article, one journalist, one moment in time. The way forward is not with more white supremacist, body-toxic rhetoric, so stop looking there.

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