Last year I enrolled my young daughter in ballet lessons at a school that a friend recommended. My daughter had a blast pointing, flexing and pirouetting, but it was one of the worst experiences I've had as a parent. I'm not exaggerating.
My mouth would go dry as I walked her into class each week, knowing I'd be scolded for some infraction, like not dressing her in the right leotard, the right shoes or the right hairstyle. As I received each lecture from one of the slender women wearing a tightly wrapped bun, it always seemed as if my kid was being scrutinized more closely than a Top Model contestant. The day I overheard two assistants discussing another child's weight, we were out of there.
This is my one and only experience with the world of ballet, and it left me with the impression that it's a world in which appearances are not only extremely important -- they're everything. Maybe that's why I wasn't surprised when in his review of "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker," New York Times dance reviewer Alastair Macaulay made a fat joke. "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," Macaulay wrote.
The remark did surprise a lot of other readers, who immediately pliéd (so to speak) to Ringer's defense. Internet blogs and boards lit up with angry comments decrying the cruelty and unfairness of attacking a female dancer about her weight, particularly because Ringer has spoken publicly about her past struggles with anorexia. Surely, as a New York Times dance critic, Macaulay was aware of this.
But what about the male dancer? The snarky quip about his body was equally unkind. I can imagine that Angle was distressed and felt the review damagaed his reputation as an artist, yet no mass Internet campaign sprung up in support of him. Unlike Ringer, Angle wasn't invited on the "Today" show to respond. Could this be a case of reverse sexism?
Xavier, a director of another top New York Dance company who asks that I not use his real name, believes fat could be an issue that goes beyond the dance community. "It's a hangover of the stereotypical idea about where men and women are in this society -- women need to be protected and men are the protectors. Even if Angle was upset about the remark, he's supposed to let it slide."
It does seem true that men are expected to have tougher skins when it comes to their physical attributes, but it seems that's not always the case anymore. Whether they are dancers, students or business executives, men are beginning to feel the same pressure as women to conform to a specific physical ideal. They're now subjected to airbrushed perfection, and expected to meet impossible standards more than ever before. According to statistics from the National Eating Disorder Association, it's taking a toll. More than a million men and boys battle with eating disorders, and 40 percent of binge eaters are men, according to the association.
"Men also suffer, but it's still seen as a sign of weakness if they show they're upset," said Dr. Joe Shrand, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School and medical director of Castle, an intervention program for adolescent teens at the High Point Treatment Center in Brockton, Mass.
Shrand says this is why we rally around a woman when she's criticized about her weight, but when the same barbs are thrown at a man we often dismiss them. "We perpetuate the myth that somehow men are tougher, but it's time to be as protective of men as we have been about women. Just because guys don't talk about it as much doesn't mean they don't have a [distorted view] of their bodies," he said.
So in a weird way, Macaulay gets points for being an equal opportunity offender. His petty, peculiar remarks were aimed at both dancers alike. For him, it's not a woman thing or man thing -- it's a dance thing. We are the ones who made fat a feminist issue.
In a follow-up column, Macaulay admitted to having self-esteem problems of his own but said dancers should expect to hear this sort of critique. If you don't want your body criticized, don't choose ballet as a career, he seemed to imply. This argument sounds somewhat out of tune to me, especially since Macaulay's opinion is so important in the dance community. He's so powerful that almost no one in the dance world is willing to stand up to him on the record.
"Even though it was beyond the pale, everyone is scared to death to say anything because a good review from The New York Times is the difference between getting a lot of work or no work," Xavier told me when he explained why I can't reveal his identity.
And precisely because Macaulay's judgment does (ironically) hold so much weight, he has a singular opportunity to change the dialogue going forward. While the body is undeniably part of ballet's aesthetic, and it's understandable that appearance is relevant to its performance, unless the 1 percent extra body fat he observed on the dancers affects their performance, he shouldn't have mentioned it. Until we all refrain from this kind of bullying disparagement, such hurtful and pointless beliefs will continue to trickle all the way to children's dance classes and beyond.