No Room to Dance: The Tyranny of ‘Perfection’ in Restrictive Eating Issues

Row of ballerinas seen from behindThe allure of beauty is intoxicating and dangerous—perhaps most dangerous for women in America. The United States fosters more so-called eating disorders than anywhere else in the world, with women affected 10 times more often than men.

Has the American dream betrayed us? There’s a promise of love and happiness for any young woman willing and able to embody the next popular image of beauty. It’s a story with an unhappy ending, but we pretend we don’t know that. From supermarkets to billboards to music and film, we are bombarded with unrealistic, grossly underweight, even life-threatening prescriptions for what it means to be a beautiful woman. Sadly, for the most part, we buy into them. Media images and ideals infiltrate our families, our peer groups, our intimate relationships; a great deal of internal strength is required to combat these images.

The movie Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Natalie Portman, unveils the very dark side of pursuing perfection and beauty. Portman plays Nina, a young, talented dancer in a prestigious New York City ballet company. She is competing for a highly sought-after part. Nina has mastered her ability to play the white swan, symbolized by innocence and perfection. Thomas, the director, embodies a seductive masculine voice, evaluating and guiding Nina’s performance and progress. He pushes Nina beyond her limitations. He insists that the dancer who plays the white swan must also be the black swan, which is more sensual and deceptive. Therefore, Nina must undergo a radical transformation of character to “fit the part.” In doing so, she becomes the “Swan Queen.” Black Swan is a tale of supreme glamor and tragic corruption.

Thomas’ career is marked by moving from one “special” dancer (each of whom he calls “princess”) to the next, discarding each one the very moment she becomes yesterday’s news. Winona Ryder plays Nina’s predecessor (yesterday’s news), Beth, who is forced to retire after having become too “old” for the part. (Notably, the beautiful Ryder is only 10 years Portman’s senior!) Shortly after Beth’s retirement, she is tragically hit by a car, a suspected suicide. In Beth, Nina recognizes something of her own fate. And yet she ignores it. She is blinded by the thrill of her more immediate aspiration. In the performance of “Swan Lake,” she achieves her moment of beauty and perfection, but she pays for it with her sanity and her life.

Nina’s tragedy is that she never has a chance to develop as a person. She lives for one moment, but never lives a life. She exists only for the sake of others—but never herself. Nina’s journey parallels the tragic tale of so many women with restrictive eating issues. Dying for beauty or perfection involves surrendering one’s true self in exchange for an ideal. The issue usually originates with a basic deprivation of respect and consideration for the individual.

Nina’s personal desires and feelings are of no importance to Thomas, the director who articulates and orchestrates all that she must become. Furthermore, her individuality goes unrecognized by her mother, who treats her as an extension of herself. Nina’s mom raised her to have the successful dance career she wished she’d had for herself. But when Nina begins to succeed, her mother attempts to sabotage that success.

How does one understand such a mixed message? In becoming more successful than her mother, Nina and her mother are no longer merged or twinned. As separate, the “unsuccessful” mom finds herself in a position to envy the “successful” daughter. As an unmarried woman who might be considered past her prime, Nina’s mom’s hope for happiness is pinned narrowly on the success of her daughter. Both Nina and her mother are victims of a cultural intoxication with a particular sort of beauty—a sort that betrays the self and proves bereft of real happiness.

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  • Gabrielle

    Gabrielle

    January 18th, 2013 at 3:52 AM

    I had no idea just how pervasive eating disorders and that quest for perfection was in our society. I have never personally known anyone with this issue nor have I ever felt this kind of pressure myself, but I guess I am not in a field that plays to that unlike dance or many other performing arts roles. I find it sad that in pursuit of something that these women love do they end up discovering so much unhappiness instead. It would make me think twice about allowing my own child to pursue this professionally if this indeed is the issue that it seems to be.

  • kiersten

    kiersten

    January 18th, 2013 at 9:53 PM

    its pathetic how so many young women are influenced by what they are shown and told..why cant people think for themselves?all that glitters is not gold!just put a little thought into whatever you are planning on pursuing or taking up and things will turn out much better,much better than rushing in expecting o find the grass greener on the other side!

  • Tina

    Tina

    January 19th, 2013 at 8:07 AM

    Very good. i hope you continue to post your writings. Hmmm did Nina have an eating disorder? I don’t remember. That movie definately speaks our desperation for perfection. Restrictive eating disorder, define please?

  • Stephen L Salter Psy. D.

    Stephen L Salter Psy. D.

    January 20th, 2013 at 8:10 PM

    Interesting Fact: Natalie Portman actually had to lose weight to play Nina! A restrictive eating disorder includes fighting against weight gain (i.e., anorexia or bulimia, as opposed to compulsive overeating)

    Good question. I don’t know if Nina would meet criteria for an eating disorder. Often times people considered to have anorexia have inaccurate views of their own bodies. I don’t know if Nina would have been able to see her body realistically. What do you think?

  • John

    John

    April 23rd, 2013 at 10:14 PM

    Steve, This was a very beautiful article. I too connect this movie character and the role she strives to embody, destructively, reductively, with the terrible and restrictive demands of an eating disorder (restrictive or otherwise). One point I wanted to add is that, in my own work with clients with eating disorders, fused with the desire to embody the unrealistic role that society seems to require is the desire to express one’s subjectivity and reject the demands of the larger culture and the culture of the family. So: a patient might strive for a perfection seemingly demanded by her family and society while simultaneously warping that vision of perfection–exaggerating its gaunt contours–to express her hunger and her woundedness. Is there this rebellion (and assertion of the self) in Nina, do you think?

  • Stephen L Salter Psy. D.

    Stephen L Salter Psy. D.

    April 27th, 2013 at 8:43 PM

    John, I think your point is very important, astute, and subtle. Perhaps you’re hitting upon an authentic core within Nina, frightening indeed, but perhaps also a part that can be reached and engaged.

  • Jessica

    Jessica

    July 27th, 2014 at 6:40 PM

    Some girls are bigger than others, some girls are bigger than others, some girl’s mothers are bigger than other girl’s mothers…. –

    Lyrics by the Smiths or Morrissey.

    It can be very hard for a young girl to accept the limitations she has inherited. When her girlfriends are naturally thin and waif-like, it can be hard to accept.

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