What you can't tell about a woman from her body shape

An open adult ballet class at The Sydney Dance Company.

An open adult ballet class at The Sydney Dance Company.

Standing outside the ballet studio, we all do the size-up. As we stretch our feet and slide last-minute pins into our buns, we look around us at the other dancers who are waiting for class to start.

That woman in front of me, with her sleek French twist and sinewy arms, is surely a brilliant dancer. The one to my right – I sneak a look at her as I stretch out over my legs – is arching her back, and between her shoulder blades I can see the tiny bumpy ballet muscles sitting just under the skin. I feel instantly intimidated, and make a mental note not to stand next to her at the barre. Comparison is the thief of joy, and if I dance next to these women, I’m going to get mugged.

We live in a culture where body size and shape are considered indications not just of what a person can do. 

When we get to the barre and start to move, something funny happens. They’re not that good. One of them is fine, but not nearly as expert as her triceps would suggest, and the other is straight up awkward.

After more than ten years of taking open adult dance classes, on three different continents, I still haven’t properly learned this lesson: you can never know how well someone can dance until you see them dancing.

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In the classes I take in New York, there are women who are shaped like dancers, all lean and long and willowy. When they walk into the studio, my instinct is to feel instantly intimidated. But then they start moving, and they’re totally outclassed by the chubby woman next to them. She doesn’t look like a dancer, but she has ten times the grace and strength they do.

I spent this summer in Paris, where I took ballet classes as often as I could. As it was Paris, the women in my classes were all dressed the part – pricey leotards from Repetto, those crinkly plastic warm up shorts that look like black garbage bags and cannot possibly be comfortable, pink tights that were perfectly run-less, and gently worn ballet slippers. They looked like dancers, and before class started I would sit on the floor stretching, ready to be upstaged once the music started. But once it did, I realised that most of them were, well, middling at best. It was just that this was Paris, and in Paris, all the women are perfectly dressed all the time, with workout gear being no exception. Obviously, wearing the right clothes didn't mean they knew the difference between a pirouette and a port de bras, and it certainly didn't guarantee that they could do either of them.

It’s not just ballet, either; after years of lyrical jazz and theatre jazz classes, I’m yet to fully commit the truth to memory. I walk into class and see a woman who looks like a good dancer, and automatically assume that she’s a good dancer. That’s not always the case. I’m still slightly surprised, every time, to discover that you can’t tell what a body can do just by looking at it.

This is a lesson that applies outside of the dance world. To a look at a woman like Rebel Wilson, you’d never know she’s a rising Hollywood star. We have a very fixed idea of what “rising Hollywood star” looks like, and it’s not a fat bleached blonde Aussie. Or what about Sarah Robles, the American Olympic weightlifter who made headlines when she revealed that, due to lack of support and sponsorships, she sometimes couldn’t afford the petrol she needed to drive to training? She doesn’t look like an Olympian, and if you passed her on the street, you’d probably think that she hasn’t exercised in years. You wouldn’t suspect that she’s an elite athlete capable of hoisting 145 kilos above her head and holding it there. We think of these jobs – starlet, athletic powerhouse – as requiring certain body types, but we’re wrong.

Of course, Robles would have a hard time doing gymnastics, and Gabby Douglas would struggle to clean and jerk a hundred kilos. Certain body types are better suited to certain pursuits. But the fact remains, you can’t know just by looking at a woman what she’s capable of doing.

We live in a culture where body size and shape are considered indications not just of what a person can do, but what he or she is worth. We see a slender woman and see discipline and fitness. We see a fat woman and see greed and illness. It’s a snap judgment we make, one we rarely stop to evaluate. It’s also often wrong.

It’s true that a person’s body is a canvas on which their life story can be written: scars, freckles, stretch marks, tattoos. You can look at a man with a buzz cut and an amputated leg and presume that he is a returned serviceman. You can look at a woman, see that one shoulder is bulkier than the other, and conclude that she is a rower. And you might be right. You can look at a person and assume that they have no disability, and be wrong.

The truth is, you can’t know much about a person just by looking at them. You can't know much until you let them dance.

 

32 comments

  • "We see a fat woman and see greed and illness" I don't, I only see greed and slothfulness.

    Commenter
    llama
    Date and time
    October 24, 2012, 8:37AM
    • and when I see a llama, I see a smelly, spitting, bad tempered donkey-like animal!!

      Commenter
      LittleDolly75@me.com
      Location
      blue mtns
      Date and time
      October 24, 2012, 10:21AM
    • Illness (and pregnancy) can lead to weight gain, especially mental illness where the sufferer resorts to food for comfort/distraction with medications that cause weight gain. The problem is, once you gain the weight for whatever reason, losing it is extremely difficult, hence the number of diet books. People are judging you for a single period of your life that you couldn't avoid and for many, the weight amounts to the battle scars of a more personal nature.

      Commenter
      Lorikeet
      Date and time
      October 24, 2012, 10:22AM
    • Lorikeet's right. The medications used to treat mental illness often result in weight gain. I went from 48kg to 114kg in one year on such medications. I've been off them for 9 years now, but I've never been able to get back below 70kg. It's not due to slothfulness or unhealthy living (eg. I have a PhD, grow my own vegies in the backyard, play hockey, swim, and walk to work), but rather the result of something quite out of my control that happened to me in my late teens. Yes, you may judge me if you see me in the street, but there are many reasons why people are overweight, so perhaps you should rethink your prejudices.

      Commenter
      stealthpooch
      Date and time
      October 24, 2012, 11:47AM
    • Ilama, what a sad perception you have.

      I have been skinny and very healthy for the better part of my life. I recently underwent IVF and the drugs caused a substantial amount of weight gain. Because they made me feel so poorly, I also didn't exercise during this period. I continued to eat well. I have now ramped up the exercise and getting on with things. My weight gain was not caused by 'greed' or 'slothfulness', as your generalisation puts it.

      Mine is only one of many reasons a person can gain weight.

      I hope you never gain weight. Living of life of self loathe, which appears to be inevitable for you based on your perceptions, is very sad indeed.

      Commenter
      Disappointed
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 24, 2012, 11:55AM
    • The guys at my gym look at a fat woman and see someone who regularly works with heavier weights than they do, and who can hit a punching bag hard enough to move it back about a foot...

      Commenter
      andilee
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      October 24, 2012, 12:43PM
  • I'm glad for once you attribute superficiality to women, rather than implying it is solely a male shortcoming.

    Commenter
    gabe
    Location
    fitz
    Date and time
    October 24, 2012, 8:40AM
    • Whilst I'm sure that men do make these superficial body-shape assumptions about women, I can assure you that we do it for men too - I've never taken a dance class, but I've played football for over 30 years, and I can tell you, we make a lot of assumptions by one's ability to play based on their body shape - I've been the beneficiary of this. If you're 6'2 (as I am) and you claim to be a centre half (as I do), people attribute a certain degree of ability to you (which I definitely don't have). The observations in this article really can be broadened out from applying just to gender and body type, and to applying to all activity and body type assumptions - ballet, football, office workers and dress codes.

      Commenter
      Jason - looks much more competant in a suit
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 24, 2012, 4:36PM
  • "The truth is, you can’t know much about a person just by looking at them. You can't know much until you let them dance."

    The whole theory of dance I was told was dance for yourself and see no-one, dance such that you don't care who see you. That may have been due to the fact I dance like I have two-left feet, but hey it is a good life credo too

    Commenter
    Carstendog
    Location
    Here
    Date and time
    October 24, 2012, 8:42AM
    • I agree! At 45, having done no exercise for 25 years, but still missing the ballet of my youth, I have started an adult ballet class. Nest thing I ever did: I'm happy for 2-3 days after, although maybe that;s endorphins from the pain. I ignore the skinny 20 year olds, and am satisfied that waiting until I lost a few kilos would have been pointless, because here I am enjoying it. One lady who comes to class is in her 60's, many are in their 30s and 40s. The gentle berating (insults) and appalling jokes from our wonderful Polish teacher make it all the more fun. Do I look stupid? Who cares! Am I good at it? Not remotely! Live your life doing what you want to do, I see so many people afraid to even try because they are too timid/shy/terrified of humiliation. Humiliate away, I say.

      My son is the worst swimmer at school. They have been known to start the next race before he finishes. But he goes in every race "because it gets my sports house more points, Mum". You go, boy!!! I want my kids to tackle life head-on. So I need to do it too. We did karate, and the kids volunteered me for sparring in front of the class. I was terrified, I'd never hit anyone in my life, I'm 160cm tall & no muscle, but knew that if I refused I'd never be able to tell them to give anything new a go. SO I did, and now feel I could actually hit someone with confidence if I needed to. The kids were very proud. Need I say more? If your kids are impressed, you're doing something right. Give it a go!!!

      Commenter
      Molly
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 24, 2012, 11:00AM

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