Ballet is having a moment. Once reserved as an extracurricular activity for young girls, the rigorous dance is now a trendy workout for people of all ages and sizes. It’s not surprising then that former ballet dancer-turned-wellness entrepreneur Sassy Gregson-Williams is also having a moment.
With a successful website and various e-books on nutrition and exercise already underneath her belt, Gregson-Williams recently launched the online workout studio, Ballet Blast by Sassy, as well as the Naturally Sassy app that combines her workouts with her plant-based recipes.
While ballet is an amazing way to burn fat and sculpt muscles, its dubious history of body image and fixation on thinness is not lost on Gregson-Williams. In fact, it’s her experience with trying to conform to the “perfect” physique the industry that eventually led her to change her diet around, leading to a passion for cooking, and a commitment to nourishing and respecting her body with good food.
Organic Authority spoke with Gregson-Williams about her struggles with body image as a dancer, how falling in love with food healed her disordered eating, and how the ballet industry is slowly, but surely, changing its physique.
OA: How does being a professional dancer affect your body image?
SGW: As a ballet dancer you spend most of your time in lycra, standing in front of a mirror, surrounded by other talented women. You’re constantly striving for perfectionism, both physically and aesthetically. Growing up in that environment definitely affected the way I viewed my body; it was never good enough, someone else’s was always better. The struggle is that your body is your tool, but it also feels like the thing that holds you back. In many ways I think being a dancer shows an extreme version of the pressures most women feel daily.
OA: What were some of the body image pressures you endured as a ballet dancer? Did you feel differently about your body before you started training professionally? What is the climate like in school and on the stage?
SGW: I grew up in a very balanced and healthy household, food and body image was never an issue for me - I had a big appetite! I wasn’t naturally a super-skinny ballerina; I had strong muscles and an athletic build. Around the age of 12 I was made aware by a teacher that I should "slim down" and this quickly completely warped the way I viewed my body. I trained with older dancers and started to copy what I saw: eating very little and counting every calorie. I didn’t see it as disordered eating, it was just "being a ballet dancer".
OA: Do you see body image, and the embracing of a different body type rather than the "tall, thin" version, changing in dance?
SGW: I think as proper education around food and fat loss is integrated into professional sports like dance, there will be change. There is certainly more diversity in the bodies I see dancing in the last five years. It is changing, but very slowly. My hope is that dancers are educated more on this as part of their training, so they can appreciate how nourishing their bodies can help not hinder their careers.
OA: How has your views on body image, including your own, changed since leaving dance? What do you value most about your body?
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SGW: I realized in my mid-teens that conforming to an unrealistic standard was something I wasn’t willing to do, not if it was at a cost to my health. I made the decision to educate myself on nutrition, on how to cook and eat mindfully and healthfully. I found a new passion away from the walls of dance and this transformed the relationship I had with my body. When, a while after, I hung up my pointe shoes to focus on the business I had built I left with an even greater appreciation for my body. I learned to appreciate the things it can do, and not what it can’t. To base my goals in movement and strength not only in aesthetic achievements.
OA: Women so often compare their bodies with each other. Have you ever struggled with that? What's your advice to someone who would say, "Oh, I wish I looked like you/had your body?"
SGW: It’s so natural to feel that way, and I certainly have and still do. The important thing is to realize how different we all our and that comparisons truly are the thief of joy. My advice is to let yourself have those feelings, but breathe them away and think of three things your body can do brilliantly. Better yet, go do them.
OA: Are your cookbooks indicative of your relationship now with food, or did you always enjoy food? Do you enjoy eating food more now that you aren't dancing?
SGW: I definitely struggled with food as a dancer, but I’m a big believer that from the lows, the greatest things can happen. I educated myself on food, on my body and that often emotional relationship between the two. I found a way of eating intuitively and intentionally to help my fitness goals and support my body. My cookbook, e-books and recipes on Naturally Sassy are to give women the tools to do the same; to fall in love with food and to learn what great food can do for your body.
OA: What do people, especially those struggling with body image, need to realize about food?
SGW: I think people need to realize knowledge is power, and learning about the food you’re eating will undoubtedly help you make the best decisions. Keep it simple, focus on your body, not on others, and keep learning.
OA: What do you think we -- as in society, the media -- need to change when it comes to body image?
SGW: Lack of confidence and body image issues often stems from comparisons we make to other women, celebrities, and peers. I do think the media needs to stop putting women side by side and comparing them. The "who wore it better" article doesn’t just stay on the page, this mindset filters into the way we view others and ourselves.
OA: What is your wish when it comes to women loving and embracing their own body image?
SGW: In the Naturally Sassy Online Workout Studio, my first class Ballet Blast fuses strength and conditioning with classical ballet principles. This workout allows women to feel graceful, beautiful and feminine while they work out - shifting the focus from only moving to look better but to feel better within themselves. I want women to have that feeling throughout their day: confidence and content.
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