Student researcher unveils why mirrors could affect dancers’ body image

By Ming Yeung, Marketing and Communications

When Cara Paley was two, her parents signed her up for a dance class. She vividly remembers the first time she walked into the studio. Mirrors covered every wall, from floor to ceiling. Like many children, she enjoyed watching her moving reflection. 

Cara Paley dancing in Nova Scotia, 2017

She hasn’t stopped dancing since. In fact, Cara has danced practically all her life, training in various styles before focusing on highland dancing at 12 years old. She is well aware of the fixation some dancers have with developing a long, slim physique — the traditional “dancer body.” Cara believes that the mirrors nearly every dancer grows up with contribute to this mindset, which is why she decided to conduct a research project to find out if they are the reason for negative body image in the dance community.

“Mirrors have been a learning tool in almost every class I’ve attended,” Cara says. “My teachers’ focus was mainly on using them to perfect movement execution. But if you’re a dancer looking at yourself, it’s easy to start critiquing your physical appearance and the shape or size of your body.”  

Cara, now a fourth-year student in the Bachelor of Physical Education and Coaching (BPEC) program, launched a study in January this year to investigate the influence of mirrors among dancers trained in a broader range of dance styles. Cara’s study specifically focused on mirrors’ effects on behavioural body image – or the behaviours dancers engage in because of their body image – regarding eating patterns and habits. Studies have shown that persistent body image dissatisfaction is known to increase a dancer’s likelihood of developing an eating disorder. “Dancers spend hours surrounded by mirrors every day. So, I wanted to see how dancers from different styles perceived mirrors as being either beneficial or harmful,” Cara says.  

“It’s not the mirror itself that creates body image dissatisfaction. Instead, in the dance training environment, it has the potential to amplify the underlying thoughts one already has about their body.” 

Overcoming research difficulties

Recruiting study participants proved more difficult than Cara anticipated. She suspects this was a result of the sensitive nature of the study; that many dancers would find it challenging to open up about their personal experiences with body image and eating patterns.  

“You’ve got to be brave to put yourself out there and talk about those things,” she says. 

Cara recruited six participants in total, all women 24–32 years old, to partake in an interview and her Multidimensional Body-Self Relations Questionnaire. 

After reviewing her findings, she wasn’t surprised to see the dancers in her study scored poorer on body image satisfaction than adult women within the general population. And those with heavy training in ballet seemed to exhibit greater patterns of disordered eating and body image dissatisfaction. 

Amplifying effect of mirrors

When Cara dug further into dancers’ eating patterns that played into their overall body image, she found two distinct mindsets. One set of dancers thought of food and eating as necessary for their dance performance and for maintaining their stamina. The other set talked about restricting their eating because they wanted to look a certain way in the mirror. 

“This study suggests that it’s not the mirror itself that creates body image dissatisfaction,” she says. “Instead, in the dance training environment, it has the potential to amplify the underlying thoughts one already has about their body. At the same time, it influences their behaviours associated with appearance, such as eating patterns.” 

How and when to use mirrors in training

With minimal research looking at the overall impact of mirrors on dancers’ body image, Cara thinks that her research could help inform teachers on how to best support their dancers.  

Age could be a crucial factor in determining the right time to incorporate mirrors in training, if more research across age groups were done, she says. 

“I would think a teenager would be more impacted by a mirror. That’s when your body is changing and you’re feeling insecure about things. And that’s when I think we see the highest dropout rate among dancers.” 

Cara says she values the hands-on experience the Sport Science Applied Research course has afforded her. It’s instilled a passion for research and a quest for her to learn more. “I like talking to people and I like finding things out in areas that I’m passionate about,” she says. 

Moving forward, Cara will be working on a larger scale project with Sport Science instructor Dr. Dominique Falls to further investigate the relationship between mirrors and body image. This study will expand its focus to include male and gender non-binary dancers as well.

Cara’s study won her third place this year at Student Research Days, an annual event for students to present their research to the larger Douglas community. 

%d bloggers like this: