The first description of hardcore anorexia that I ever read was in junior high: ballerina Gelsey Kirkland’s bestselling 1986 memoir Dancing On My Grave, in which she revealed how she lived on one slice of a green apple with a spoonful of cottage cheese three times a day in order to stay thin for her art.* To hear Kirkland—and later, many other professional dancers—tell it, eating disorders were the norm in the ballet world.
Natalie Portman’s new movie Black Swan, for which the already slender actress lost 20 lbs. in order to play a prima ballerina, has reignited the debate about whether ballet is pro-ana. Portman’s remarks about the “discipline” involved in losing weight didn’t help. And that same week, New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay took cheap shots at dancers he thought looked fat—and was forced to defend them.
The issue of scrutiny came up this week in a review of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” at New York City Ballet. I wrote that Jenifer Ringer, cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy, “looked as if she’d eaten one sugarplum too many,” and that Jared Angle, as her Cavalier, “seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm.” This has caused a certain brouhaha online, and a minor deluge of reader e-mails, in many cases obscene and abusive. The general feeling was that my characterizations went beyond the pale of civilized discourse. One reader wrote that the review was “appalling,” “heartbreaking,” “childish, “hurtful” and “incompetent.”
I agree with that reader, and the fact that Macaulay wrote a response probably means his editors saw some merit in the criticism. But Macaulay refuses to apologize. He writes:
Notably, the fuss has been about Ms. Ringer’s appearance. No one took issue with what might be considered a much more severe criticism, that the two danced “without adult depth or complexity.”
No, no one objected because that kind of “severe criticism” is what a ballet critic is paid for. The Times didn’t commission the mean-girl body-snarking, though.
Macaulay also claims the problem is not what he said, the problem is the feminists who objected. Because they’re so sexist!
And though I was much harder on Mr. Angle’s appearance, scarcely a reader objected. When I described Nilas Martins as “portly” in The New York Times and Mark Morris as “obese” in the Times Literary Supplement, those remarks were also greeted with silence. Fat, apparently, is not so much a feminist issue as a sexist one. Sauce for the goose? Scandal. Sauce for the gander? No problem.
That defense can be summed up as: “I get away with being an asshole about male dancers’s bodies, so what’s your problem, ladies? That’s equality for ya!” Never mind that he shouldn’t have said those things about male dancers either (and that neither of those dancers is even remotely fat—behold a pic of the “obese” Nilas Martins). Being an equal-opportunity dick doesn’t make it okay, or professionally appropriate.
Regardless, Mr. Macaulay’s complaints about “sexism” are ignorant and deliberately disingenuous: the day women’s bodies, weight and looks are treated exactly the same as men’s by our culture, then we can start applying the same cultural standards to comments about men’s bodies.
Macaulay admits that he knew that Jenifer Ringer had battled an eating disorder, but that doesn’t matter to him. It’s still okay to make nasty remarks about her body, because:
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. I am severe — but ballet, as dancers know, is more so.
Translation: “Ballet doesn’t treat you humanely or respect your feelings, so I don’t have to either.” The body police, with their unapologetic misogyny, are always with us. Sometimes they dress up as dance critics.
*Kirkland’s autobiography was so vivid, scandalous and scary that little details like that have stuck with me for over 20 years now. Other shocking things I learned: cocaine can be taken as a suppository, and Mikhail Baryshnikov is not nearly as good in bed as you might think.