Not Really About Ballet (or Bikes): A Weighty Matter

Everyone in the United States now lives in a place where being bigger than the “norm” is the norm.

Yet we still also live in a place where fat people (as a non-fat person, am I allowed to use that phrase?) are treated as a minority — and an unwelcome one, at that. 

In her amazing blog,  Dances with Fat, dancer/Health At Any Size maven/size activist extraordinaire Ragen Chastain recently wrote about how, structurally, our culture still behaves as if fat people don’t exist (for what it’s worth, at least hospitals, medical offices, and movie theaters in this area seem to be “getting it” to some extent, but our cultural prejudice against fat is still rife).  

She wrote about how we often, as designers of environment, sacrifice the safety and well-being of a whole group of people – moms, dads, brothers, sisters, friends; real people – and how we feel like it’s okay to do so, because we feel like, you know, they could choose to lose weight.

We could figure out how to make seat belts and bus seats (and other things) that work for bigger people, but we don’t because, in short, we don’t like them.   We don’t like them even when, in the immortal words of Pogo, “… they is us.”

I think this is wrong.   I think it’s as wrong as choosing not to work on a cure for lung cancer because could choose not to smoke and we don’t like smokers.  Our Puritan heritage makes us think that by making better seatbelts or whatever we’d be enabling people, but even that thought reflects an inherent prejudice.  Regardless of how we feel about the question of size, big people are here, and they deserve to be safe and happy just like smaller people.

Yet, as cyclist and especially as a ballet dancer, I move in two worlds wherein body size is a constant undercurrent.  Even as I talk about Health At Every Size and size acceptance (and the fact that I find people of many different sizes valid, and worthy, and attractive), I am focused on reshaping my own body in pursuit of an aesthetic that I believe will improve my performance as a dancer … and I’ve probably been only too willing to accept praise for the results of my efforts, when in fact effort is only part of the picture.

I know that it’s a bit hypocritical to be like, “You’re fine at your size, but I’m too big for me even though I’m actually kind of small, relative to the current average.”  I get that I’m allowed to have my own aesthetic, but at the end of the day that aesthetic is definitely one that is linked, for a lot of people, to some pretty unhappy stuff. 

Choosing to become slimmer is, to an extent, very much like choosing to straighten your hair if you’re black or “act straight”  (for whatever that means) if you’re gay: you might just be doing it because you like the way it looks on you, but it’s impossible to fully decouple the act from its cultural implications.

Choosing to pursue the classical ballet aesthetic or a bike racer’s lean physique, meanwhile, takes that to a whole new level — both in cycling and in dance one encounters a fair bit of elitism, and body-type elitism is definitely part of the picture. Bigger dancers tend to feel like they’re not as good (in a basic-worth sense) than leaner dancers — indeed, would-be-dancers sometimes shy away from their dreams because they feel like they’re “too big” even as they admire lean and graceful professionals.

Likewise, I am definitely aware that there is more at play here than just my effort – genetics have a hand in it, as does the fact that I was flat-out skinny for much of my life – so I’m not going to go back to thinking everyone can lose weight as easily as I have if they just try harder.  But other people might not be aware of that, and might either use my “success” in reshaping my body to shame fat people or might look at me and say “He can do it, so why can’t I?   What’s wrong with me?”

I’m not responsible, at the end of the day, for the meanings and feelings other people connect with my actions.  I can’t control that.

What I can control, though, is how I act – – not just what I do, but how I do it.

So here’s what I’m wondering: what is the best way for me to be an ally, here?  Obviously, inclusiveness and advocacy are important — but what else can I do to let the world know that even though I’m small, I think big people are great, and deserve a fair shake?

From the outside, do my words and actions look like those of an ally?   Or am I getting it wrong?

The time the I spent being overweight definitely opened my eyes.   For example: I learned that if you walk into a new doctor’s office and tell them that you’ve been skinny for most of your life and now you aren’t and that you’re concerned about that (that is, worried that maybe there’s an underlying health thing happening), they are very likely to assume that you’re either lying or hyperbolizing about the “always been skinny” part.  There is a moral judgment that people make about fatness — they assume that you’re lazy and undisciplined* and always have been, and that there’s something morally wrong with that, and with you.

That said, there’s a lot I haven’t experienced, and we are the worst arbiters of our own behaviors and prejudices.   So, basically, I guess what I’m saying is this: if there’s something about me that reflects an underlying prejudice that maybe I could work on, feel free to tell me, and if there’s a way you feel like I could be  a better ally definitely let me  know. 

Especially welcome would be any thoughts on how to make sure I’m supportive of dancers if all sizes — because dance is definitely a world unto itself, and one in which the norm is still very much lean.

What prompted this post, in fact, was the thought (which I mentioned on tumblr) that I’m “starting to look like a dancer again” – a perfect example of the kind of thinking that relegates anyone who doesn’t fit a certain aesthetic to the “non-dancer” category, which could definitely make folks feel unwelcome and unwanted and unseen.

Those folks should be welcome.  All of them being something unique to the studio, and some of them are great dancers very much deserving of the opportunity to perform**.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep examining my own behavior, because at the end of the day, it’s up to me to not be a jerk, and to learn to see how my words and actions might be jerky and unhelpful.

So that’s it for now.   I know this is long and it all makes at least some sense!

*As a cyclist and a dancer, I find it a bit surreal that the average person in this country might assume, for example,  that either Ernest Gagnon or Ragen Chastain is lazy or undisciplined. 
We Americans imagine ourselves to be disciplined people, but observation has led me to conclude that we really mostly aren’t. 

For what it’s worth, though, laziness is a valuable evolutionary strategy, and I contend that discipline, per se, doesn’t exist – only motivation exists.

**I’m going to go out on a limb here, though, and say that I think we probably shouldn’t crack down on artistic directors and choreographers who tend to select dancers that fit the current dominant aesthetic.   Artists choose whatever media suit their particular creations,  ADs and choreographers included (that doesn’t mean they should be jackwagons about it, if course).

Instead, we can support both the more traditional modality and innovative ADs and choreographers who work with an array of body sizes and types.  After all, we didn’t clamor for the end of oil paint when acrylics and other new media were on the rise – we just made room for the new media, which bring their own merits (and that didn’t happen overnight, either).

I think there’s a place in the world for the current classical ballet aesthetic, but also for other dance “media,” if you will.

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2014/08/19, in balllet, health and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. There have been so many times when I have felt like a hypocrite for believing that we should be nice to overweight people and not judge them while judging myself – and harshly, for that matter – about any weight gain. I grew up overweight, from childhood until a little over 3 years ago, and for the first year it was a struggle for me to get used to it, the thinness. At times I would forget that I lost the weight and picture myself as heavy still. It has caused so much confusion for me and the worst part is that no one understands. People who knew me as “bigger” would keep pestering me about whether I was sick or unhealthy. At the same time, I kind of felt resentful at myself for losing weight and “leaving them behind”, however rediculous or irrational that sounds. Since gaining weight comes easy to me, I had to completely restructure my lifestyle/eating habits to lose the weight so it alienated me from those around me. There were times when I figured I had been happier bigger and almost wanted to gain it back just to not feel like such a lonely freak. I tried making up for it by being extra nice to bigger people, but that just felt wrong too.
    Then I found ballet, and suddenly there was a (functional, practical) reason to want to keep my weight down. It’s helped with the weight loss guilt, which still follows me.
    It’s really sad, because it seems that society is structured in a way that makes it easy to gain weight (sedentary lifestyles, huge portions, driving instead of walking, cheap junk food, etc) but then society turns around and says that those who take part in those things offered, and show it in their bodies, are somehow “bad” while those that don’t show it aren’t. This is going to sound dramatic, but on some days that makes me so sad that I cry.
    Anyway, I don’t have any advice on being a better ally, but hopefully we’ll figure it out. 🙂

    • Thank you very, very much for your thoughts here. It seems that this is one of those issues that cuts really deep for everyone, regardless of where they lie on the weight spectrum.

      For what it’s worth, you don’t sound dramatic at all. It’s a very hard place to be, and it’s a place we’re all kind of trapped in.

      There are such powerful cultural value judgments attached to weight — and it seems that the more pervasive the environment of unhealthiness is and the more Americans who find themselves on the so-called “wrong” side of the weight divide, the harsher the surrounding culture becomes towards heavier people.

      Thank you again. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one that both wants to be a good ally and doesn’t know how — and maybe we will figure it out! 🙂

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