Alyssa Caffarelli 2013 spent this summer studying body dissatisfaction, body objectification and eating problems in young adult dancers.
As a Summer Fellow, she was able to immerse herself in her project “Eating Attitudes and Body Objectification in Emerging Adult Dance Communities” for eight weeks. She surveyed 70 female dancers and did not include male dancers in her study because the population is limited. Dancers demand perfection from their bodies, she concludes, and are unrealistically critical of their perceived shortcomings.
“I’ve been comparing these variables in dancers and non-dancers, with expectations of these issues being more prevalent in dancers because of the importance and focus on the body that the dance culture practices,” says Caffarelli, who is vice president of Escape Velocity Dance Co. at Ursinus.
Dancers with any ballet background at all and dancers who identified as having a strong modern dance background both scored significantly high in body surveillance, she says. This means they are more concerned with how their bodies look than what their bodies can do.
Dance majors displayed significantly more dieting behaviors than dancers who were not dance majors. And dance team members (past and current) displayed more body dissatisfaction than all other dancers. A course during her sophomore year inspired her to pursue the topic of body surveillance in dancers. Professor Kneia DaCosta, in the Psychology Department, was researching eating attitudes, body objectification and social pressure in adolescents. “I became very interested in the topic and her research,” says Caffarelli. “When it was time to apply for Summer Fellows, I knew I wanted to work with her. I wanted to do interdepartmental research combining my two majors and biggest interests (psychology and dance) because I never had the opportunity to combine the two before.”
The rigorous ways in which dancers critique their own bodies, she says, can result in emotional distress.
“I think all young women have something about their physical appearance that they wish that they could change,” says Caffarelli. Asking questions about these topics can be stressful for respondents, she says. “Respondents do not want to “stick out” and they don’t want to answer in ways that may be perceived as irregular,” she says. But it’s hard to gauge what is normal in a survey like this, she says, because it is questioning topics that people tend to not talk as openly about.
What is important for young women is that they be educated in terms of body acceptance, especially dancers. “Body image issues are seldom talked about among young women; I think we all underestimate how many people really struggle with body acceptance. I would not only hope to find ways to educate young women about that fact that they are not abnormal by struggling with body acceptance, but I would also hope to help them find ways to achieve a healthy mind/body connection.”
Caffarelli, who started dancing at age 3, is passionate about dance. “It is such an incredibly expressive and personal art form in my opinion, because the body is the artist’s instrument. One of the most powerful feelings in life is finding a kinship with people your path probably would have never otherwise crossed with through dance.”
She will continue this research as an honors project during her senior year. “I plan to survey more young women and increase my sample size as much as possible,” she says. “And to conduct focus groups among dancers in hopes to help contextualize the results of the surveys and provide a basis for future hypotheses.”