Wednesday, 5 November 2008

More Juxtapositions

Yesterday I wrote about those contradictory things in time. Truthfully, I could write for days about nothing but the juxtrapositions and contrasts which fill this world and make it more interesting, less perfect. Today, when reading about eating disorders, I was not surprised to read that one of the two jobs you'll find the most sufferers of anorexia in is modelling. We all know how the vogue is for super-thin, and the pressure that those in the modelling world feel. Nevertheless, I find it hard to get my head around these constantly contradicting ideals about beauty. There are so many photos out there of anorexics with horribly sunken faces which I'm not going to post because frankly, they are repulsive. A few centuries ago, classic paintings depicted women who would probably be seen as overweight by today's standards.

But what is fashionable is always going to change, in terms of the colours which are in this year as well as the body shapes. Weirdly enough, Oscar Wilde said that 'fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months' - maybe he's right and what is now commonly perceived as beautiful, because it works with what is fashionable, is in fact hideously ugly.

Anyway, there are always different people with different opinions. I still know several people who maintain that curvy is more feminine, others who would prefer healthy muscles to the Auswitz look and those who want to be petite and delicate in size and manner. After all - beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

This is why I found it even more startling to learn what the other high-risk job in terms of eating disorders was - being a ballerina. Maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised, especially considering that my first encounter with eating disorders was a Baby-sitter's Club book revolving around an anorexic ballerina storyline. Nevertheless, there is something so strange about it all.

Consider this: ballet is one of the most physically strenuous career paths one could possibly choose. Long hours of exercise, and the excruciating difficulty of dancing on pointe mean that you have to have a lot of strength. Today I read about one sufferer of anorexia who fell into a coma after attempting a 1 minute jog. How can you be in that situation to do something like this?

So, there's this incredible strength which is normally associated with athletes who, although very lean are not at all small. But then, as this image demonstrates, ballerinas have to look so light that you imagine that they might be able to fly. Serena Williams looks beautifully healthy, but she could never convince you of that.

Before the rise of feminism, trousers and Suffragettes women wore corsets to exaggerate their womanly curves, and as a result became very weak and gained a reputation for dramatically fainting. This was appealing to men who could assert their manly superiority by protecting their weak little lady. Ballerinas need that stereotypical sense of feminity, fragility, so that the male lead can twirl and support and lift her.

However female ballerinas are not renouned for their curves, and their busts are rarely very much more protruding than their male counterparts. So how does this whole old-fashioned ideal of feminity fit in with their boyish physique?

This is just one example of the different expectations society expects met - take today's news, with the fantastic result of Obama as the democratic President-elect contrasted with the disappointment of Proposition 8. Juxtaposed together, how ridiculous does everything begin to seem? I can now clearly see why ballerinas feel the pressure they do; contrasts can be intellectually stimulating as well as very beautiful, but they are also overwhelmingly confusing.


  1. Pretty face, you've made many astute observations here.

    It's a tragedy to me that people can't just be beautiful as they are, instead of feeling they have to crowbar themselves into such narrowly homogenous visual ideals.

    I also feel the futility of the passing of Prop 8 in the face of the huge (bigger picture) victory that was the Obama victory. My hope is that his administration will effect a change in attitudes that will force a shift on over to the left.

  2. Great post, I love the way you think. You are right, but sadly I din't hold out much hope for these things ever changing.

  3. thanks both of you :)
    i realise now how ridiculously long this post looks. It's just blogger's huge margins, I think!

  4. Three things coming from someone who did ballet seriously until she was 19.

    1) it's my impression there are a lot more anorexic ballet students than professional dancers. it's much harder to have the stamina required for company class, rehearsal, and then performance if you're anorexic, especially if you're in the corps and dancing every night. not that there aren't anorexic professionals, just that in my unscientific opinion, there's a higher percentage of anorexia among serious ballet students. plus companies tend to take their dancers' health very seriously since their dancers are their investment, and that's not the attitude at a lot of ballet schools.

    2) the trend towards leotard ballets (as opposed to tutu or romantic ballets). everyone looks bigger on stage -- wider and taller. leotards are extremely unforgiving, so if you're a "normal" weight, and you're onstage in a leotard, you will look a little heavy. fluffy skirts do cover up a lot. leotard ballets also tend to be more athletic, and being thinner means you can push your extension and flexibility further.

    3) balanchine started the trend for "string beans." his preference was for naturally tall, thin ballerinas -- tanaquil le clerq, suzanne farrell, darci kistler (when she was young). and then came sylvie guillem.

    if you watch clips of dancers from the '50s or earlier, you'll see their extensions are lower, the feet are less arched, they don't jump as high (usually). we can't put the genie back in the bottle and go back to that technique now, and we probably can't do it with weight (for dancers) either.

    oh, and in the olden days, if you were plump, it was seen as a sign that you led a luxurious life. you had enough money to buy lots of food and pay servants to do your work. now its the opposite. if you're thin, it's seen as indicating you have the time/money to go to the gym.

    wow, super long comment. sorry!

  5. Thank you Susanna, that was a fascinating comment to read. I did expect that anorexia was more common in aspiring models/ballerinas than the actual superstars.

    As for your last point, well yes, in all the old books, the poor and unattractive characters are 'small and scrawny' because they're underfed and overworked.