There’s no denying that the pressures of young girls and boys to look and act a certain way are increasing every day. From followers on social media to competition among peers, it can be a lot for kids to handle.
Fortunately, organizations such as Ballet Austin Academy and ChampionsTX, a gymnastics and cheerleading training facility, are changing the way athletes think about themselves and are instilling a different message: respect.
Bill Piner is the Academy Director at Ballet Austin and keeps the school running smoothly. Piner has been teaching since 1982 and understands how the pressures outside the studio can affect his dancers inside the studio, which is why he’s working to ensure that Ballet Austin is considered a safe space for students.
“We [the staff] work in a cohesive, collaborative way, and we all keep communication open, so we understand that the kids are being challenged to grow and be the best that they can be," Piner says. "At the same time, they're kids, so we want to make sure that it’s happening in a good way and in a positive atmosphere. Whether they go on to dance professionally or to any other pursuit, they should leave with a positive experience that will help them be successful.”
This safe environment is important because the expectations of kids within social platforms, such as Instagram, are becoming increasingly more difficult to navigate.
Maggie Holmes Jackson, a former member of the University of Texas Pom Squad, and Courtney Hosea, a former University of Texas cheerleader, understand the difficulties young women are facing in a world dominated by social media.
“I think social media is a double-edged sword," Hosea says. "There’s a lot of positive energy out there and people encouraging you to love your body just how it is, which is great, but there’s also a heightened sense of awareness of what everyone else is doing and how they look. Most people only put the most flattering photos out there, so it’s easy to get caught up comparing your flaws in the mirror to other people’s best angles.”
“Social media opened the door to having our bodies critiqued by friends and even strangers,” Jackson adds.
It’s a scary reality. To a certain extent, our youth no longer get to focus on making friends and cultivating relationships in social settings. Instead, they’re forced to grow followers and post images without flaws. And with apps readily available that assist with editing images, there’s a sense of perfection that is unattainable.
But just as Ballet Austin is a safe space for dancers, ChampionsTX is creating a positive atmosphere for gymnasts and cheerleaders.
“Some gyms focus on the image of the athletes, and this is exacerbated by social media, which, in general, puts pressure on young kids and teens to look and act a certain way.
When kids see their role model athletes, called 'cheerlebrities' in the cheer world, they may feel a desire to be like, look like, or act like them,” says Molly Goodyear, Cheer Director at ChampionsTX and Head Coach of EPIC Elite Cheer. “It is, in the end, a competitive sport and athletes are competing to be the best they can be, so out on the competition floor the pressure is there. But, in our gym, we make sure that the focus is on the team, and we make sure that the body image pressure is not there. We are all about family. We respect, love, and support each other.”
This idea of respect is resounding between Ballet Austin and ChampionsTX. Respecting their athletes and teaching their athletes to love and respect each other is of the utmost importance.
“We make sure that all of our athletes know we are on one team," Goodyear says. "We cheer each other on, clap for each other’s successes, and you’ll hear them encouraging each other to hit skills.”
"[At Ballet Austin] there’s understanding that there is a culture of respect and responsibility of resilience. The three R’s. We talk to the kids about having respect for yourself and others,” Piner says.
While not often thought about, resiliency plays a big role in children attempting to reach perfection. There’s an essential lesson to be taught when skills don’t come as easy to one student as they do to another. Each child has different strengths and abilities, and the team at Ballet Austin is working to help students recognize their gifts and work toward their goals.
For Jackson, it’s a refreshing change to have a positive outlook for dancers.
"I love that there’s more conversation around creating positive body images for dancers," Jackson says. "It’s something that I didn't grow up with. Dance is one of the most beautiful art forms, and I want my future children to be able to experience all the wonderful benefits of dance without the damaging pressures from false media images and societal expectations.”