As a young girl, Brittany Adams had the drive and talent to be a ballerina, but she never felt she looked the part.
At 14 and already self-conscious about her appearance, she attended an intensive ballet summer program where she watched a video featuring a group of especially gaunt dancers wearing just pink tights, pointe shoes and black leotards. "I better look like that one day," she recalled thinking. "I gotta get there. I have to."
Adams did not go gaunt — and she still found success in ballet.
Now 23, the St. Paul City Ballet dancer is part of a growing local effort to talk about body image and eating disorders. The city ballet this week is posting photographs on its Facebook page of dancers in action as part of a social-media campaign, "Take Back the Tutu."
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
The images, by freelance photographer Caroline Yang, show the dancers as they are — muscles, curves and all. They leap, lunge and look strong in every picture. The campaign includes testimonies about how the dancers came to finally embrace their bodies. In a profession that often equates beauty with being thin, many ballerinas have at times had a complicated relationship with food.
"Just because we are in a leotard and tights in front of a full-length mirror for multiple hours, you find anything that you think does not fit, and then you strive to fix it," said Zoe Emilie Henrot, the ballet's artistic director and a childhood friend of Adams.
Henrot used to consume herself with what she saw as flaws with her body. "Fixing it" meant skipping meals when she was younger.
She said eventually she came to terms with the way she was built. Her so-called "man thighs," as they're sometimes called in the ballet world, are what can make her jump to extraordinary heights.
It's important for professional dancers to start the conversation on body image and eating disorders, she added.
"For the most part, we don't talk about it. Even if we see it, we'll talk about it in hushed voices," she said. "But I don't think it's really discussed."
Research shows eating disorders affect about 6 percent of American women, but the rate is more than three times higher for people who compete at the most elite levels of dance and similar activities, such as figure skating and gymnastics, said Jillian Lampert, senior director of The Emily Program, which treats people with eating disorders.
The Emily Program regularly treats dancers. In recent years, the circle of clients has grown to include a host of other athletes.
"People are surprised to find out that sitting next to them is someone who plays soccer, and sitting next to them is someone who plays basketball, and sitting next to them is someone who plays hockey, and sitting next to them is a gymnast," Lampert said. "It really does impact people across different activities. Unfortunately, it's not as contained to those aesthetic sports and activities as much as it used to be."
Athletes of all kinds face pressures that make them think they could compete at higher levels if they could just achieve a certain weight, she added.
Adams still sees her body as different from other dancers. "I see myself as curvy," she said. "When I walk into a studio, I notice that my chest is three times as big as other people's, and I have a larger butt."
She knows, though, that if most people saw her on the street, they'd think she looks fit — even thin — at 5 feet 6 inches, 138 pounds.
At times, she still perceives herself as heavy, which explains why she needed to psych herself up before doing a lift with her male dancing partner during a recent rehearsal at the ballet's sun-drenched studio above a Grand Avenue hardware store.
"Just go for it," Henrot called out to her. "He's gonna catch you."
IF YOU GO
The Emily Program will host a discussion Friday at 7 p.m. about body image and nutrition at the St. Paul City Ballet studio at 1680 Grand Ave. as part of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. The talk is open to the public, but the dancers hope that among those in attendance are some of the ballet's 100 students, many of them children who look up to the dancers.