The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

The (Critic)al Issue of Weight Bias

It’s an unfortunate reality that people get teased / judged /excluded / ridiculed because of  their weight on a daily basis.  In fact, weight-bias has been referred to by many as the last socially acceptable form of discrimination – yet no less detrimental than the racism, sexism or religious intolerance seen throughout history.   Weight-based teasing happens across all social arenas – between tots on the playground, around the family dinner table and on the covers of tabloids.  It happens to men and women, teens and the middle-aged, blue collar workers and secretaries of state.   Most of the time, these unfortunate jabs go by unpublicized and the recipient of the comment left to their own defenses to deal with whatever negative body image seed has been planted. The result is never a good one.  But is there ever a case when weight judgment and teasing is justified?

NY Times critic, Alastair Macaulay seems to think so as evidenced by his review of the New York City Ballet’s November 26th opening night performance of The Nutcracker.   In it he wrote:

This didn’t feel, however, like an opening night. 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. (The New York Times)

After his comment drew tremendous criticism from dancers, dance enthusiasts,  and the general public alike Macaulay ended up writing a rebuttal of sorts, defending his critique and his right, as a critic, to comment on dancers’ bodies and their weight.  In the response article, he contradicts his own stance on the importance of a low weight to enhance dance technique, but he mostly defends his right to poke fun at dancers’ weight:

Some correspondents have argued that the body in ballet is “irrelevant.” Sorry, but the opposite is true. If you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism, do not choose ballet as a career. The body in ballet becomes a subject of the keenest observation and the most intense discussion.

While there’s no question that, in dance, the body becomes the vehicle for the art, we contest the idea that Alastair Macaulay’s comment was a necessary, appropriate  or even mature form of critiquing the performance.   In fact, the adolescent “teasing” quality that came across in his sugar plum comment has lost Macaulay respect among his readers and colleagues alike.  Respect and professionalism aside, Macaulay’s review hit a nerve because it has much greater implications for individuals, the profession and our society-at-large which continues to condone weight-based jokes and a body ideal that few can attain without resorting to dangerous behaviors.

It just so happens that, Jenifer Ringer, the dancer criticized for “eating one too many sugar plums” has since spoken publicly about her personal struggle with negative body image and eating disorders on The Today Show with Ann Curry.  This, unfortunately, is not an uncanny coincidence but more of a statistical likelihood.  In a 2006 study of ballet dancers done by the University of Pittsburgh, 83% percent of the dancers met lifetime criteria for an eating disorder (Int J Disord. Eat 2007; 39:503).   The investigators speculate that even this shockingly high number may not fully capture the extent of the problem.  In his response piece, Macaulay acknowledges these risks, yet seems to accept them as par for the course, writing that:

Ballet demands sacrifice in its pursuit of widely accepted ideals of beauty. To several readers that struggle is, regrettably but demonstrably and historically in the case of many women, concomitant with anorexia.

Perhaps he would feel differently if he knew that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.  Upwards of 20% of individuals with an eating disorder who do not get treatment will die from their illness according to the Eating Disorder Coalition.  But instead of using his public voice to call attention to this, he has proposed that his career justifies his comments and chooses to focus on perpetuating a dangerous stereotype.   The widely publicized  excuse seems fairly similar to that of  comedienne and self-proclaimed D-Lister, Kathy Griffin who recently joked excessively about Bristol Palin’s weight gain during a VH1 Divas Salute the Troops event.  After being met with overwhelming boos from the audience of U.S. troops, Griffin defended her hurtful comments, saying,  it was a necessary part of her job as a comic.  To this, Bristol Palin reacted by saying “The audience’s reaction to this ‘comedian’ spoke volumes, and the decent people I know would probably have booed her, too… I hope people didn’t have to pay money to hear her negativity and criticisms.”

In both cases, the silver lining has been the public’s widespread disapproval of the hurtful and damaging comments.  Certainly,  in the case of Jenifer Ringer, we have also seen a beautiful example of someone overcoming all odds, defying the pressures to conform and becoming a much needed spokesperson for REAL beauty and health vs. weight in the ballet world.   Jenifer Ringer gets the last word:

It’s a physical profession. We’re dancing all day long…. But if you’re too thin, you can’t do the job. That’s where people run into trouble. When I went through my eating disorders, I went through anorexia; when you’re weak, you can’t do the job, and you can’t perform it well.

As a dancer, I do put myself out there to be criticized, and my body is part of my art form. At the same time, I’m not overweight. I do have, I guess, a more womanly body type than the stereotypical ballerina, but that’s one of the wonderful things about the New York City Ballet. We have every body type you can imagine. We have tall, we have petite, we have athletic, we have womanly, we have waif-like. We have every body type out there. They can all dance like crazy. They are all gorgeous, and I think dance should be more of a celebration of that — seeing these beautiful women with these different bodies all dancing to this gorgeous music, and that’s what should be celebrated. (Jenifer Ringer as quoted in Tara Parker Pope’s NY Times Blog)

What do you think – are critics and comedians (or other professions) justified in making weight-based jokes  or publicly degrading people for the way they look?  What are the repercussions?  Leave a comment below or join the discussion on our facebook page.

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