Op-Ed: Let’s Stop Talking About Racism and Fat Phobia as Separate Issues

February 1, 2021

We know ballet has problems. We’re constantly hearing stories of racism endured, of gender discrimination exposed, of body shaming repudiated. But as any ballet teacher might tell you in class, perhaps we need to focus on the linking steps—the connections between these stories. Because ballet’s problems are systemic, not just individual. In particular, I think many are missing the connection between racism and fat phobia.

The most recent crop of interviews and think pieces on body shaming in ballet have featured the story of dancer Kathryn Morgan’s experience at Miami City Ballet. Morgan’s story echoes those of many others—pressure to conform to a rail-thin ideal unrealistic for most bodies. Misty Copeland has certainly shared her experiences with body-shaming, often in tandem with her frank discussion of racism in ballet.

Stories such as these give rise to broader pieces, such as Dance Magazine‘s 2016 “The Cult of Thin,” and the 2020 “What Would It Take to Change Ballet’s Aesthetic of Extreme Thinness?“. But in most of these conversations, the connection is only fleetingly made, if at all, between ballet’s obsession with thinness and its attachment to whiteness.

In her 2019 book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Dr. Sabrina Strings offers an analysis that suddenly brought this intersection into focus for me: “The fear of the imagined ‘fat black woman’ was created by racial and religious ideologies that have been used to both degrade black women and discipline white women.” Her book asserts that race is central to a clear understanding of American culture’s obsession with thinness. She calls race “a double agent. It entails the synchronized repression of ‘savage’ blackness and the generation of disciplined whiteness.”

In what other art form is the veneration of “disciplined whiteness” so evident? Tracing the history of the form from the Renaissance courts of Europe through imperial Russia, ballet emerged in the U.S. in the mid-19th century and its impact expanded during the early to mid-20th century—a history spanning slavery and Jim Crow. American ballet could not help but reflect the country’s white-supremacist foundations and preoccupations.

Perhaps the most prominent example of the complex intersection of race and shape in the ballet body can be found in the legacy of George Balanchine. Dance scholar Dr. Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s well-known analysis unearths the Africanist influence in Balanchine’s choreography, tracing his work in popular dance on Broadway and his connection with Black artists such as Josephine Baker and Katherine Dunham as formative, but unacknowledged, influences on his distinctive choreographic style in ballet. Additionally, Balanchine’s preference for a particular body type in ballerinas has long been common knowledge in ballet circles, and has been linked, often anecdotally, sometimes explicitly, to the form’s insistence on extreme thinness.

Consider a 1997 article on eating disorders in ballet in The New York Times, in which Jennifer Dunning wrote: “[T]here is popularly believed to be an ideal ‘Balanchine’ body type for women, with the jobs going to tall, slender women with long necks, long legs and short torsos.” Dunning did not add “white” to that description, but later in the piece she quoted Dr. Michelle Warren saying of eating disorders: “Dance is one of the worst areas. The average incidence of eating disorders in the white middle-class population is 1 in 100. In classical ballet, it is one in five.” Here the whiteness of the classical ballet population is implied, but not stated.

A basic deception lies at the heart of ballet technique. The ballerina must look fragile and ethereal, and her thinness supports this. But of course, it takes remarkable strength and discipline to achieve this illusion.

Last year, as the streets boiled over with protests at the death of George Floyd and protestors toppled Confederate monuments, I was getting texts from other white friends who were suddenly waking up to the reality of racism in this country. “I’m reading White Fragility,” folks would say, “Have you read it?” I was feverishly planning to teach a ballet history class and I suddenly thought, The idealized thin, white ballerina is the embodiment of a different kind of white fragility: steely strength and power masked by etched collarbones and mannered delicacy, by a seeming dependence on the strength of a male partner. Venerated onstage and on posters and advertisements, she fulfills Strings’ assertion that in the U.S. particularly, “the racial discourse of fatness as ‘coarse,’ ‘immoral,’ ‘black,’ and ‘other’ not only denigrated black women, it also served as the driver for the creation of slenderness as the proper form of embodiment for elite white Christian women.”

Ballet seems to be a place where mainstream (read: white, traditional, western) culture enshrines some of its most treasured stories, of heroic princes, evil magicians, true love. But ballet’s embodiment of this mythmaking is shaped by potent and ugly forces.

Think of the many stories of both racism and body-shaming that emerge from the experiences of corps de ballet dancers asked to whiten their skin, or lose just five more pounds, in service to an ideal of uniformity grounded in western-European aesthetic preferences.

Strings notes, at the end of her book, that the problem of the thin ideal has up to now been framed by white feminist scholars as primarily impacting the lives of middle- and upper-class white women. Thus, Dr. Warren’s quote in Dunning’s 1997 article resonates with many of the body-shaming stories, the eating-disorder stories, that still haunt the ballet world. We tend to speak and write about racism in ballet as a separate problem. But if we can consider the connections between the two, our understanding of ballet’s challenges and its possibilities can deepen. (Power, of course, is key to this understanding, as writer Theresa Ruth Howard sharply reminds us.)

The thing is, ballet dancers don’t have to be rail thin, just as they don’t have to be white, or heterosexual, or cisgender, or nondisabled. They have to be beautiful, powerful dancers. The ballet world may finally be beginning to realize this, just as many other areas of our culture are. If the January 2021 cover of Vogue can look like this, I’m thrilled to imagine the future poster stars of American Ballet Theatre or New York City Ballet.