Today’s guest post is from Tiffany Braniff, who you’ve “met” before when I covered her blog Dancing Branflakes. Though we didn’t go into it much in our interview, Tiffany has spoken quite openly on her blog about body issues, her experiences growing up, the influence others had on her body image, and her continuing struggles. I asked Tiffany if she would be willing to provide an article for Dance Advantage that might encourage and support young dancers who are struggling. I know you’ll take away something from this article whether you are a student, a parent, or a teacher.
What will I look like if…?
There is a website that allows you to see what you will look like if you lose or gain weight. It is quite simple: you upload your picture and move a knob on a scale up and down depending on what you want to see. What will you look like if you lose those last 5 pounds? Voila! And what about if that scale goes up after a few weeks without exercise? Your new, heavier look is right in front of you. It is smart marketing for a diet and exercise website but bad for the self-esteem.
I am ashamed to say that not only did I try this tool but I also obsessed over it for a while. When I moved the scale down 5 pounds I looked the same. When I moved it down another five pounds I found the same body but with a slightly larger head. Even at a 20 pound weight loss the only thing that seemed to change was my outrageously large head and randomly skinny elbows. This was not exactly the beautiful, new image I was hoping for.
My next step was to see what every person fears. I moved the scale higher so that I “gained” five pounds. Bad idea. I moved it again to ten pounds and I became physically ill at how heavy I looked. I could not handle seeing myself that large and quickly moved the scale back to my real weight. I fear few things in life but gaining weight is at the top of my list.
I began to wonder why I looked the same when I “lost” weight yet when I gained a mere 5 pounds I suddenly became overweight and a horrific sight to be seen. Was this how I would really look or was the website defective? After much consideration I realized that maybe it was neither. Maybe my fear of gaining weight prevented me from seeing reality.
Objects in mirror may be….
Psychologists call my episode with this website many things, namely body dysmorphic disorder and according to the Mayo Clinic of Health [link] it is also referred to as “imagined ugliness.” A person may not have a firm grasp of reality due to a false perception that is already established in the mind. Basically, this disorder prevents people from seeing who they really are.
As dancers we face our reflection so much that you would think we know what we look like. We spend hours every day in front of a mirror in nothing more than skin tight clothing and a skirt if we are lucky. But I have found that the opposite is true. Most of us have a distorted idea of our image.
There are dancers striving to lose a “last 5 pounds,“ that does not exist. There are perfectly healthy dancers obsessing over thighs that touch or a stomach that rolls when sitting. They do all they can to lose weight but, much like the scale, nothing happens. Some dancers then label themselves as fat out of frustration and desperation. The fact is that they do not need to lose weight and that is why nothing happens. The body reaches a point where it fights to hang on to everything it needs to be healthy. At this point the truly desperate turn to unhealthy measures that inevitably shorten their dancing careers and drastically reduce their quality and quantity of life.
How do we improve our body image and prevent or combat “imagined ugliness“?
Let us take a few steps back and deal with the real issue at hand. There is a hesitancy among some dancers to accept and love their bodies because they are not perfect. From an early age we are taught that perfection is the goal and anything short of perfection is unacceptable and needs to be worked on. I want to tell dancers everywhere that although this might be true about technique it is certainly not true about our bodies.
The fact is that your body, your great and marvelous gift, is what got you to where you are today in your dancing career. Give it a high five and a pat on its back. It deserves to be praised. And loved. And accepted. Celebrating your body will not hurt your career but it may in fact help it.
Say 5 Positive Things
A few months ago I began complimenting myself as a way to not dissolve into a puddle of tears as I lamented over my body during a particularly difficult rehearsal. Any time I thought a negative thought about my body I forced myself to say five positive things. I began this during tech week and it was much more difficult than I anticipated. From costume fittings to criticisms from the directors I did my best to find five things I loved about my body any time I thought negatively about it.
This exercise was simultaneously humbling and helpful. I began to appreciate things about my body that I never noticed before because I never took the time to look in the mirror in an honest way. I realized that my attitude toward my body was already so negative that by the time I looked in a mirror I had prematurely made up my mind not to accept it. I had essentially set myself up for failure.
Do I think my body is perfect because I have started to finally try to love it? Absolutely not. I clearly see my imperfections and everyday I work on my tight hips, not so hard belly, and slightly curved back. But as I aim for perfection my body and I have an understanding that it will never be perfect and I have to accept that. I also have to treat it well. In return, my body has promised to take me to my fullest potential as a dancer and to help me reach my highest goals.
To those that care for dancers:
Not all dancers have negative body images but if you know any who do please help them. Please show them that there is a difference between staying in shape and punishing themselves. They need to know that there is a difference between being hard on themselves and beating themselves up. One is productive and shows dedication to the art form while the other is destructive and stems from self loathing.
To those who are struggling:
My plea to you is simple: love your body. Do not let a negative body image take away from the joy that is dance. You have gotten to where you are today not despite your body but because of it. Treat it well and learn how to compliment it without hesitation. I promise you that you will have a happier, better, and more fulfilling dancing career.
Tiffany Braniff is a dancer, teacher, and choreographer based in Sacramento, California. She began her dance training at Pamela Hayes Classical Ballet Training in Sacramento. She has also studied with Ruth Rosenberg, Loretta Livingstone, Tanya Lockyer, and Nolan T’Sani. She received her B.A. in Dance with a composite emphasis in ballet and modern dance from Brigham Young University in 2007. At BYU she studied under certified movement analysts the Laban and Bartenieff techniques. She performed with both the ballet and modern dance companies at BYU and presented three of her choreographic works in concert.
Some highlights of her career have been working with the incredible Dr. Linda Goodrich, Nzinga Camera, and Tanya Lockyer. This past summer she also had the wonderful opportunity to learn works by Anna Sokolov and Zvi Gotheiner under the direction of Repertory Dance Theater and Linda C. Smith.
She is currently in her fourth season as a company member of Dangerous Lorraines Dance Theater. She is excited to perform at the San Francisco Fringe Festival with DLDT this coming Fall. Tiffany is also on faculty at Northern California Dance Conservatory where she teaches ballet and contemporary dance.
Challenge you to say 5 positive things about your body or yourself on a daily basis!
Dr Katharine Phillips, a psychiatrist based at Butler Hospital in Rhode Island, USA, estimates that as many as one in 50 people may have the disorder, most of them men and women in their 30s (from a BBC report in 2000).
Eating disorders affect up to 24 million people in America, anorexia is the 3rd most common chronic illness among adolescents, and many more individuals display disordered attitudes and behaviors toward eating. (Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics and Resources (doc), published September 2002, revised October 2003, www.renfrew.org).