THE FILM "Black Swan" with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, which opens in Philadelphia tomorrow, has come under fire because of the dramatic 20 pounds lost by each of the already-thin performers so they could portray ballerinas.
With eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating on the rise, this movie concerns Susan Kleinman, the dance-movement therapist at Philadelphia-headquartered Renfrew Center.
"Our culture promotes eating disorders, and some experts estimate the increase has gone up as much as 117 percent," said Kleinman. She's particularly concerned about the young girls who look up to athletes and actors with eating disorders.
I second that motion. But these misperceptions are equally detrimental to the 30-, 40-, and 50-year-old women who suffer eating disorders at pretty much the same rate as younger women. According to a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill report, 75 percent of American women have an unhealthy relationship with food and their bodies.
With those statistics in mind, eating disorders and body-image problems are not just a "white girl" thing, as the stereotype would have us believe. No, eating disorders cut across racial, ethnic and economic lines.
The world of ballet can be particularly brutal. I know a few dancers from the Pennsylvania Ballet who, despite impeccable talent, were told to lose 15 to 20 pounds if they ever hoped to be in the "A" company.
Likewise, I know dancers from Philadanco and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater who were given similar ultimatums.
As if it were yesterday, I can vividly remember taking a dance class at the Koresh studio when a young dancer had a sudden fall during a lesson. When the 21-year-old returned to class, both of her hips had been replaced. Yes, despite their outward appearance, many young and even teen dancers have the bones of an 80-year-old because of poor nutrition.
In regard to "Black Swan," I don't blame the actresses for their honest portrayal of the ballet world. After all, Robert De Niro gained a whopping 60 pounds (equally unhealthy and dangerous) for his portrayal of Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull."
I do, however, blame the industry, dancers and - dare I say it - the American audience, which demands and pressures all women, but particularly actresses and dancers, to be unnaturally thin and unhealthy.
To add insult to injury, a typical 98-pound dancer puts in a grueling five to eight hours of rigorous training daily, as these two actresses discovered during their year of training to prepare for their roles.
Both artist and athlete, elite ballet dancers apply forces to their bodies as extreme as football players. Except dancers must perform eight or nine times a week, instead of just on Sundays, besides enduring daily grueling rehearsals.
The question is, are we and they paying too high a price? Looking at the facts, the answer seems fairly obvious.
But how do we change these attitudes? According to Kleinman, "mothers, parents need to accept their own body, not dieting, being happy in the body that they are given, eating in a way that is healthy and enjoyable. Recognize we come in different sizes and shapes and working for balance are the keys."
Sounds simple, right? With any luck, "Black Swan" will not only entertain, but perhaps open up a much needed dialogue about women's relationships with food and their bodies.
Let the healing begin.
Join the My Body Project Roundtable that I'll be moderating from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at the Wexler Gallery, 201 N. 3rd St. The topic is, "Are we ever truly at home in our own bodies?"
For more information go to www.inmybody.org.
Kimberly Garrison is a certified personal trainer and owner of One on One Ultimate Fitness in Philadelphia (www.1on1ultimatefitness.com).
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