Youth Protection Advocates in Dance (YPAD) is a non-profit dedicated to building empowered communities to keep youth happy, healthy and safe in dance. Curtain Call, a global leader in dance costume manufacturing united with YPAD to collaborate on this first of its kind research project. Our goal is to provide insight into a dancer’s emotional experience regarding costumes. This knowledge can assist dance leaders and parents in nurturing a more body positive environment leading to a healthier self-concept and a greater awareness that dance truly is for every body. Thank you to Center Stage Dance Academy, Misty’s Dance Unlimited and The Pointe School of Dance for allowing your dancers to participate! (Please note the photos in this article are from a YPAD/Curtain Call photo shoot and not of the research participants)
Studio owners and dance instructors are faced with the yearly task of dance costume selection. What seems to be an exciting time of the year can become overwhelming, stressful and discomforting. More often than not, little consideration is given to the costume process/experience from the dancer’s perspective. Even with subtle insecurities, a dancers’ body image can be greatly affected while trying on costumes and viewing themselves in a mirror or in pictures. These same dancers see themselves multiple times per week, dancing in front of a mirror. They have the ability to scrutinize every inch of their bodies. After they receive their costumes they are required to wear their costumes on stage in front of hundreds of strangers. To some dancers, this is not an issue or concern, but to others it can affect their body esteem greatly.
According to the Park Nicollet Melrose Center, over 80 percent of ten-year-old girls are afraid of being fat and 30 percent of 10-14-year-old girls are actively dieting. When it comes to teenagers, 53 percent of 13 year olds and 78 percent of 17 year olds are unhappy with their bodies. By middle school, 40-70 percent of girls are dissatisfied with two or more parts of their body. Body image dissatisfaction does not just occur in females. 30 percent of teen boys utilize unhealthy weight control behaviors such as laxatives, skipping meals, fasting and/or vomiting. This percentage increases to 50 in teenage girls. What else is astounding is body image awareness among preschool aged children. At the age of four years, children start to compare themselves to others, focusing primarily on their clothing and hair. At around the age of five years, children become aware of their body size. At the age of six children may start to experience body dissatisfaction. According to the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media, girls as young as six years old may start to self-sexualize, believing if they were sexy they will be more valued and appreciated. Parents, family members and others influence a child’s body esteem either directly or indirectly. Making comments regarding weight and body shape, body development, body teasing and/or shaming and suggesting a child to be on a diet, or celebrating a weight change without knowing if that change occurred in an unhealthy way, are direct forms of influence. Modeling is an indirect influence.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, PBS and the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders also completed research studies. In their findings 30 percent of teenage girls and 25 percent of teenage boys have reported being teased due to their weight. 80 percent of females say female images in media make them feel insecure, while 58 percent of college-aged girls feel pressured to be thinner. When looking at these statistics, it is interesting to note that the total annual revenue, in 2016, of the weight loss industry was $55.4 billion.
Three studios participated in this project and volunteered their dancers to try on costumes provided by Curtain Call. The twenty-one dancers ranged in ages between five and 19 years. Dancers were given a questionnaire prior to the costume experience and were asked what they liked most and least about their bodies, as well as what mood they were in. The dancers were then given a costume to try on. Three more surveys were administered; 1) after they tried on costume in changing room, 2) after they viewed themselves in a mirror and 3) after they viewed themselves in a picture wearing the costume. After the entire process dancers were administered a follow-up questionnaire asking their mood. From these surveys, much information and insight was extrapolated. Given the information gained, the most notable was the change in mood and self-concept each dancer had. The surveys/questionnaires obtained offer a glimpse into a dancer’s process physically, emotionally and mentally, when they try on costumes. This qualitative snapshot allows professionals the ability to acknowledge and understand a different perspective. This perspective affords professionals an opportunity to educate themselves and apply that knowledge in the future.
Twenty-one dancers participated in our study with Curtain Call. There were two main objectives that our study was interested in investigating. First, we wanted to follow the dancer through their emotional process of trying on a costume to see if there were any changes in their self-esteem. The second objective was to discover from the dancers what aspects were important to them when it came to the costume.
Prior to trying on costumes, dancers were asked what feature of the body they liked the most, what feature they liked the least of their body, as well as their current mood. The most liked feature of our population was hair (42%) followed by eyes (33%). The least liked part of their bodies, according to the dancers, were teeth (19%), followed by hips (14%), stomach (14%), and 14% reported that there was nothing about their body that they disliked. The most commonly used adjectives the dancers used to describe their mood prior to trying on the costumes were happy (51%) and tired (42%). In general, approximately 62% reported being in a happy or elevated mood and the remaining reported feeling tired or ok. After the costume was tried on in three different situations, 38% reported an increase in their mood, 33% reported no change in mood, and 29% experienced a decrease in their mood.
Approximately 42% of the dancers stated that they felt good and confident about themselves throughout the process. Close to 33% of our population stated that their sense of self decreased throughout the process. Of the 33% that had a decreased self-esteem, 57% of those dancers stated that they felt more self-conscious (ex. “looking in the mirror made me feel self-conscious”, “I felt big”). There were 15% of the dancers that stated their self-esteem had no change throughout the process. Finally, there were 10% that were able to remain positive throughout the process even though they did not like the way the costume felt or looked on them.
Important Aspects of a Costume
The dancers in our research project were asked to rate four different aspects of the costume (whether they liked the costume, if they felt confident in the costume, if the costume was comfortable, and if they felt they could dance to their full potential in the costume) in three different situations (they tried on costume in changing room, viewed themselves in a mirror, and viewed themselves in a picture wearing the costume.). The scale ranged from 1 to 5, where 1 was the lowest rating and 5 was the highest rating. The dancers reported that out of the four categories in the three different situations, comfort (4.02 out of 5) was the highest rated and liking the costume was rated the least (3.26 out of 5). The second highest rated category was whether or not they could dance to their full potential (3.82 out of 5), followed by feeling confident in the costume (3.47 out of 5).
Overall, the situation that got the highest ratings for all three categories was the one where they tried on the costume without any pictures or mirrors (3.7 out of 5). The dressing room that received the second highest rating was the one where were they viewed themselves in a mirror (3.63 out of 5). The lowest rating dressing room was where they viewed a picture of themselves in the costume, which received a rating of 3.60 out of 5.
We all know that day when our costumes come in the studio and we are handed our costume for the dance piece that we have been working on for weeks. The costume plays an important role in bringing the dance piece to life. Yet, little is known about the internal process of the dancer when they go try on their outfit. In considering the results of our research, it is important for parents, dance teachers, and costume companies to consider the impact trying costumes on can have on the individual dancer.
Most of the dancers that were involved in our study came into the study that day feeling happy and/or tired. Yet, when the process was completed only a third reported no change in their mood. That means two-thirds of the dancers had a change in their mood. For some the mood was elevated and for others their mood diminished. There are some things that dance teachers and parents can do for their young dancers to help if their dancers mood decreases after they receive their costume. The first suggestion is to ask them about their experience in private and listen to their answers. It is important not to try and tell someone how they should or should not feel; instead try being curious. Sometimes children are unaware that they are experiencing a change in mood, and in those instances let them know that you noticed a change in their mood. If a child states that they don’t want to talk about it, then let them know that is ok but you are here to listen if they do want to discuss anything. The one thing that will not help is to tell them how they should or should not feel. Another suggestion is to provide your dancer with a reward after their costume experience. Make a plan to do a fun activity afterward to help lift their spirits.
Our research shows that in general dancers (even as young as five years old) have parts of their body that they like as well as parts of their body they don’t like. The body is the main focus in the dance community for it is the body that creates the art. However, if there is too much negative focus or criticism on the body, the body is no longer just a body, and the potential for developing anxiety, depression, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and obsessive compulsive disorders increases.
Tools and Suggestions
- When talking about the way a costume fits on a child, do not speak to the child about how their body looks in the costume. For example, do not tell a child that the costume makes them look fat, short, not flattering, too big or too small. Instead, try saying that the costume is not quite right. Make it the costume that is the problem and not the body. Also, avoid saying the costume makes them look thinner, their legs longer, their stomach flatter, etc. Even perceived “positive” comments can have a negative impact. Remember the primary purpose of the costume is not to make the child or adolescence more “attractive” but for it to be functional, comfortable and enhance artistic expression. There is absolutely nothing wrong with telling the dancer they look beautiful, handsome, etc. as long as it is not the primary focus. Including comfort, feel, functionality and artistic expression will give your feedback balance and validate that their beauty and attractiveness is not dependent on how their body looks in the costume. We all want to feel attractive. However, the belief that value comes from a body part fitting into societies narrow definition of attractiveness can become problematic. When we make somebody attractive, handsome or beautiful due to their body that removes the other aspects that make them human, hence objectification. Appreciating our body for the amazing things it does, coupled with character, work ethic, uniqueness, etc., nurtures that feeling from the inside.
- If possible the dancer should try on their costumes without a mirror. See how the child moves in the costume and whether or not the costume feels comfortable to the child. Comfort and ability to dance were the top two values for the dancer and having that be their first experience of the costume versus how they look in it, may actually help increase their self-esteem. When they look in the mirror giving feedback that focuses on how the visual effect of how the costumes moves as they move, will be perfect for the theme, showcases their technique and skills, is powerful in numbers, etc., may also help a young dancer redefine their relationship to the mirror.
- Share this research study with your dance parents so they can partner with you on healthy approaches and comments. Be thoughtful about whether to encourage parents or teachers to take pictures of the children on this initial day of the costume try on phase, taking in to account whether the child may have already expressed discomfort or negative feelings about their body. Consider the research regarding the viewing of the photo and how this plays out with the rise of disseminating photos of children in costumes on social media. According to our research, seeing a picture of themselves in the costume was the least liked way of experiencing the costume. It has become normal when we see pictures of ourselves to begin picking apart the parts we dislike. Instead, encourage parents and teachers to allow the relationship to the costume to develop based on how it feels dancing and enhances the storyline and artistic expression. Taking pictures when their child is stage ready, and emotionally experiencing the excitement of performing and friendship, may also be helpful. Ideally we would like for everyone to see a photo of themselves and like and appreciate the costume and their body, free of self-objectification. Shifting our comments and protocols in small ways can add up to big changes.
- YPAD and Curtain Call will be releasing educational videos and blogs with more tips and suggestions regarding body image, self-esteem and costumes.
Photos provided by Curtain Call Costumes.
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