Black Swan Beautiful – or Dangerous?

[image via]

I’m having a hard time reading this article in Vogue about Natalie Portman’s training regimen and transformation for her role in Black Swan.

I don’t disagree with core strength, awareness, beauty and elegance. Mary Helen Bowers, the woman Portman trained with and the creator of the Ballet Beautiful program talks about the physique to which her students aspire:

“The body type is strong. It’s muscular, but the muscles are very long and lean and there is something that’s very elegant about the body, and also very powerful,” she says.

But isn’t there also something dangerous? Mila Kunis talks about how her training and weight loss for the film left her feeling, well, gross. She lost 20 lbs for the role, dwindling to a mere 95 lbs.

“In real life, I looked disgusting, but in photographs and on film, it looked amazing.” [via]

Yikes. I’m glad Kunis says this out loud because even though the pain of training is apparent in the film, and is being discussed in the press, I still feel like there’s this underlying tide of: but don’t they look beautiful?

And that’s what this Ballet Beautiful article talks about too. Train hard, intensely, unforgivably and you, too, can look beautiful. The tagline on the site reads: Artistic. Athletic. Attainable.

Yoga is not ballet. We are not taught to train or restrict for the sake of achieving a certain body type. And, to be honest, I don’t mean to suggest that ballet is a particularly vain pursuit. I simply don’t know enough about it to say that. It is an art, but one that has the surface-workings of painful ego-addiction.

In yoga, we are encouraged to let go of ego all together. But all the tools for vain self-destruction are there: rigorous dedication, cleanses, diets, austerities. The superficial practices – when coupled with the beautiful bodies we see bending and twisting on the pages of magazines – can serve to feed the ego, too.

I don’t have a final word on all of this. I’m not saying that this film is doing women a disservice, or that Yoga Journal is twisting our minds. I’m just aware of my own feelings when I read this article.

Ostensibly, the press coverage is not congratulatory about the rigors of training and weight loss these women undertook for the roles they play in this film. And yet, somehow, I still feel an undercurrent of it. Is it because I can feel the push and pull, the attraction and repulsion of this kind of physique myself?

Is the suggestion there – that this is an acceptable ideal for women – or is it just my sensitivity? Is anyone else feeling it?

2 thoughts on “Black Swan Beautiful – or Dangerous?

  1. I completely respect your suspicions and feelings about this but as someone who suffered for years from eating disorders and found yoga to be both constructive and destructive, I’m finding Mary Helen Bower’s “Ballet Beautiful” and Elisa Gulan’s “Ballet Conditioning” to be godsends. Neither advocates working out intensely, it’s more about focus and enjoying the connection with the body and our own innate elegance for 30, 45 or 60 minutes…often even just 15 minutes, whatever fits into your schedule and adapts to your current level of abilities. Mary Helen in particular even suggests students nix the mirror in order to avoid the obsessiveness that comes with staring at oneself all the time and instead focusing on the joy of the movement and how it feels. I’d say that’s about the healthiest attitude towards working the body I’ve ever heard. The program used on Portman was to get her to look like a dedicated dancer, obviously. I have never heard Bowers or any other ballet teacher aiming at “civilians” to overdo it or make it a 2 hours+ per day endeavor. And if you look at the NYC Ballet corp there are so many different body types; all incredibly lean, yes, but far more varied than would have been seen or employed decades ago. So I do feel that outside of the professional world of ballet, where as an artist you make choices (and nowadays that does not require being anorexic), the focus and encouragement, especially where Ballet Beautiful is involved, is to feel like a ballerina without suffering like one or sacrificing your life. Her whole point is that 15-45 minutes per day, even 4 or 5 days per week can work miracles. Personally, I’m seeing and feeling that with none of the negative effects I felt with yoga (which I practiced and taught for 20+ years), this just suits my body more. If anything I believe she is shattering the destructive elements of ballet exercises and creating something safe, enjoyable and thoroughly empowering, for herself and the rest of us latent ballerinas. 😉

    1. This is a really thoughtful response. I’m glad to hear you have had such a great experience with Ballet Beautiful. From what you say, it sounds like this program is realistic and encouraging – rather than restrictive and overly demanding. I liked what you mentioned about the focus and connection with the body. Thanks for adding your voice.

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