Fat Ballerinas Need Not Apply

Heather Murphy-Raines

It's Nutcracker season! There is something about the tutus and froth and swelling music that is both magical and familiar, especially during the holidays. 

Ballet appeals to the little girl inside us all. Even more magical? As a mother, seeing your daughter in a tutu for the first time. 


What isn't beautiful though are the unreasonable demands placed upon ballet dancers that make it their life's work. Instructors are brutal as they focus steely eyes on every ounce on a dancer's body. Critics are even harsher.

Take Alastair Macaulay for example. The snarky New York Times chief dance critic has recently come under fire for his critique of a ballerina who had publicly struggled with eating disorders and anorexia. He said she was overweight. Despite being under fire, he stands unapologetically behind these words:


Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she'd eaten one sugar plum too many; and Jared Angle, as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm.

I am shocked he feels so smugly justified in his cruel assertions. He assassinates their bodies as if they were ready for the fat farm.


This is not his first time at this rodeo. He described Nilas Martins as "portly" in The New York Times and Mark Morris as "obese" in the Times Literary Supplement. More of his zingers:

In the 1970s Lynn Seymour’s weight was more pronounced, and her physique more curvaceous, than Ms. Ringer’s. And her upper arms wobbled considerably more than Ms. Ringer’s did last week.

Some correspondents have argued that the body in ballet is "irrelevant." Sorry, but the opposite is true. If you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism, do not choose ballet as a career. The body in ballet becomes a subject of the keenest observation and the most intense discussion. I am severe -- but ballet, as dancers know, is more so.

Ummm, I am so glad my and my daughter's fairy plum passing interests were just that ... passing! 

I cannot imagine a discipline so acidic to one's soul and self-esteem that a major newspaper would allow such toxicity as acceptable critique. Whatever happened to critiquing the dance rather than the body?

Is the only acceptable "line" in ballet a body so weak from malnourishment that the actual strength and act of dancing are compromised?

Aside from the Nutcracker? 

I admit it. I do not have a great love for the arts. I can take them or leave them most days.

Give me a glass of wine and a juicy Glee or House episode any day.

Add this toxic training environment, and I say my daughter -- a strong, healthy, well-muscled swimmer -- is much better suited emotionally and physically in her sport than she ever would have been obsessing over calories as a ballerina in its pervasive healthy-body hating culture.

Yet, there is still something that tugs at my heart when I see pictures like these in my album or the video of my little cherub below.

Ahhh, the ballet is nice, but we'll take swimming where a strong body, stronger body image, and healthy appetite are always welcome.

So would you consider letting your daughter seriously train for the ballet? What about the criticism? Is it fair to judge a ballerina solely on her aesthetic body-type, or is her talent what critics should focus on?

Isn't movement to music, not thigh circumference, what the enjoyment of dance is all about? Here's my little guy in his chubby glory at 18 months. This is the glory of dance, is it not?


Images via Scout's Honor/United States of Motherhood

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