By Katie Sahar
As dance performers, our bodies are the physical manifestation of music and our vehicle for expressing ourselves without words. As a dance form that lives in the entertainment industry at the professional level, there are expectations put on us by the general public that hires us, expectations that vary community to community and culture to culture. However, Middle Eastern dances are also social at their core, and often dancers that come to this art as outsiders never turn professional, these body standards have carried over into classrooms and informal student haflas, shows and events in the West.
While changes in the broader entertainment industry in regards to appreciation of a diverse array of bodies is a slow going and arduous change (however, changing slowly every day), there are still questions to address:
How does body shaming manifest itself in our community? What does it look like and how can we improve?
Let's break down some examples (that I personally have heard, or had directed me, a plus size* woman**, over the years):
"That costume looks terrible on her body. She needs to cover that up."
Here in the Midwest where 'niceness' reigns supreme, we rarely hear overt, direct comments like this, but it still happens. The easiest way to avoid this?
Don't comment on someone's body.
As long as the dancer's costume is not falling off, or exposing their nipples or private areas, consider: Maybe the dancer is content in her looks. Maybe she doesn't care what you think and her body and is fine the way it is. Shut other people down when you hear it and let them know you don't think it's appropriate to make negative comments about other people's bodies, regardless of whether or not you like them as a person.
We all have had the experience of being a baby dancer in an ill fitting costume (bra cups too small, skirt too short, hip belt that slides down) or have had students think that something fits or covers what it should, but they aren't experienced enough to know what a costume should 'feel' like. If you find yourself in this position, simply tell your student the fixes that need to be made (bigger cups, padding to fill in cups, hooks sewn tighter, etc.) and as long as they feel confident in what they're wearing, let them be regardless of what you think they "should" be wearing, as long it is the contextually and stylistically appropriate choice for their music or choreography.
"You're so brave for wearing a XYZ costume item, I could never do that."
This one seems pretty innocuous at first, isn't it a compliment to say to someone that they are brave and confident?
Yes...but, no. These types of comments come with the assumption that there is a reason a dancer shouldn't be confident. Why wouldn't someone feel comfortable in something that they bought and liked enough to wear in public? If you're having a problem with confidence in yourself, I would venture to say that it is a personal issue that you need to resolve on your own, not place on someone else.
What to say instead?
"Wow, I love your costume!". Easy. No shame. A genuine compliment. Easy fix!
"I feel so fat today, I better wear a galabeya tonight."
First things first...'fat' is not a feeling. 'Fat' is an adjective. An adjective that generally has a pejorative connotation, but it is still an adjective. When a relatively thin person makes this comment to a larger person, it doubly gives the implication that there is something wrong with a fat body in its natural state, and an upward scale fluctuation is in an anomaly that needs to be hidden.
What to say instead?
"I feel uncomfortable in my skin right now, I'm going to opt for a galabeya so I don't feel constricted and can dance more freely."
"I'm so old, no one wants to see me in a 2 piece costume any more."
This one really hurts me to hear because it shows how deeply ingrained patriarchal belief systems are embedded in us. Who says nobody wants to see any type of person in any type of costume? Why is there a rule that when you hit whatever age you have to cover up? Why do you owe a debt of 'attractiveness' to the viewer?
This is social conditioning at its finest and I implore anyone reading this to examine why you think this, and even if you don't decide to wear something more revealing, know that there are many people who are thrilled to watch someone with experience and maturity express themselves in a genuine way. Why not push some boundaries and pave the way? The world and the entertainment industry is hard enough on us. Why bow to 'their' whims if you're in the context of a dancer for dancer environment? Why keep upholding the standards that have already weighed us down (pun intended) for the majority of our years when you don't have to?
Further notes about body shaming for dance teachers:
It should be noted that much body shaming, subtle and overt, happens in the classroom environment. Things you can do to combat this:
-focus on how movements feel vs. how they look-make corrections using anatomical terms (e.g. instead of 'flatten your belly' or 'suck in your gut' consider 'pull your belly button to your spine'). -shut down diet talk amongst yourself and students. There are more interesting things to talk about than your food intake, and such discussions can be very triggering for those dealing with or recovering from eating disorders.-leave disparaging comments about your own body at home. Your students don't need to absorb your issues with your body.
Small steps like these can make a difference in how welcoming and inclusive our community is. While the entertainment industry is part of some dancers' goals and there are likely uncomfortable conversations to be had at some point, remember that not everyone's goal is to be a professional, and many of our students and hobbyist level dancers are there to have fun and enjoy themselves in this art form.
*Body shaming happens to thin women too, and it is also unacceptable to tell someone that they are 'too skinny' or 'need to eat a sandwich', but I cannot speak from this perspective.
**I write this as a cisgender woman speaking to a mostly cisgendered female audience. There is no intent to be exclusionary as men, trans and non-binary folks do experience body shaming, and all the same advice can be applied, but there are different considerations at play.
Learn more about Katie Sahar at katiesahar.com