"Suck in your ribs!": My life in the Ballet

Suzanne Farrell

Suzanne Farrell

I used to think there was one type of female beauty: the ballet aesthetic

I was a ballet and jazz dancer from the age of 7 until 20. Once I started developing, I became super aware of my body, and it didn't help that I spent 4-5 days a week studying this body of mine in front of miles upon miles of mirrors.

My ballet teacher was your stereotypical strict, loud, Russian-accented woman. She would walk through our barre rows with a cane in hand, stomping it to the music. She would shout out things like, "Tuck your pelvis in!", "Suck in your ribs!"--which, to a 9-year-old girl translated to, "Suck in your stomach." So, there we all were--learning how to suck in our small, prepubescent bellies.

The terrible pale blue leotards

The terrible pale blue leotards

I got my period when I was 9 or 10, and my breasts quickly grew soon after. Our uniforms at the time were pale blue leotards with pink tights. Eventually, the director of the company realized the pale blue wasn't a good color for developing girls' bodies, as our breast buds showed through all too well. Uniforms finally switched to burgundy leotards, and pink tights. This somewhat masked our feminine figures.

Even at my thinnest, I didn't feel attractive. I felt I could be thinner, "better." My perception of beauty at this time was a bit skewed. I only saw famous ballet dancers as "beautiful." I wanted to look like Suzanne Farrell: protruding ribs, airy, muscular, but tiny, prepubescent. I used to hang pictures of ballet dancers around my floor-length mirror in my bedroom to remind me what I wanted to be (an idea I believe I got from Cosmo or some other shitty girl rag). I looked at pictures of women with curves, and didn't think they were pretty. The reason? Most, if not all, ballet dancers dread growing into an adult woman's body--it's not "ballet"--it's not the aesthetic for Swan Lake, or Giselle. I would like to believe this is changing today, but I can't say for sure.

I developed an eating disorder, and still thought myself "ugly." I had to stop dancing for a while, since I was far too weak to be doing fouette turnsor pirouettes. Once I got better, I began to do more jazz dance, and less ballet. I slowly removed myself from that scene (don't get me wrong, I love ballet, but the "scene" is horrendous). I started doing yoga around this time as well, which helped me to see the beauty of other body types.

Moi

Moi

I grew up. When I reached the age of 20, I realized I no longer wanted to be "ballerina-thin." I liked my new-found curves. Now, at the age of 26, I love my body even more. I think back on my former perception of beauty and cringe. It's scary to know how easily little girls can get it in their heads that they aren't beautiful.

It's equally terrifying to know how impressionable little girls are. I wouldn't trade my ballet experience for anything, but I have often wondered if I would have had a more positive body image without the ballet.

I'll never know the answer. What matters most is I have that positive body image presently.