22 March 2022

Spotlight on... Love Your Leo(tard)

Ella Matthews UEA BalletLove Your Leo(tard) is an annual body positivity campaign started by UEA Ballet in 2019, that has since become a national and international phenomenon. Running from 1-20 March, the campaign encourages dancers and athletes to celebrate their bodies, irrespective of how they look, and be proud of their abilities.

In the ballet world particularly, dancers are subjected to a long list of physical criteria, the effects of which are often overlooked. As a result, each year the campaign seeks to raise money for their chosen charities, Beat and Eating Matters. These charities specialise in offering help to those suffering with eating disorders, an issue which commonly affects ballet dancers in the sports and performing arts industries.

This week, we sat down with UEA Ballet President, and third-year Marketing and Management student, Ella Mathews to discuss how this year’s campaign is going. Ella emphasised the importance of these conversations, detailed the admiration she has for her club members and explains why ballet dancers should celebrate being strong over being slender.

There is so much pressure on individuals to look a certain way in the dancing world, and we want to smash that perception and focus on all the incredible things that our bodies do for us. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you look - if you have a body then you can dance.

What is Love Your Leo(tard)?

Love Your Leo(tard) is a body positivity campaign that invites people who wear tight-fitting clothing in their sporting activities, such as leotards, to celebrate what their bodies do for them. The main part of the campaign is asking sport clubs to go out and take photos of members in iconic locations across their university campus or city. These posts are designed to empower members and communicate the message that we can be proud of our bodies in the kit we wear. You can find an example here.

We also use the campaign to open conversations around issues like body image and disordered eating. We have been running Love Your Leo(tard) since 2019, and each year we aim to raise more money for our chosen charities, Beat and Eating Matters. These charities specialise in offering help to those suffering with eating disorders, something which disproportionately affects ballet dancers in the sports and performing arts industries.

There is so much pressure on individuals to look a certain way in the dancing world, and we want to smash that perception and focus on all the incredible things that our bodies do for us. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you look - if you have a body then you can dance. If there’s one thing, I’d want people to take from this campaign, it’s to give yourself permission to love your body. It certainly isn’t an easy journey, but you should allow yourself to celebrate your body and be proud of it.

Why do you think ballet as a sport needs a campaign like this?

There’s a long list of criteria that ballet dancers are expected to meet to be successful, and the pre-pubescent body is particularly idealised. The ‘desired’ ballet body is slim and tall, with lean muscles and a long neck.
 
However, not everyone fits those criteria. Puberty inevitably changes the female body; your hips and chest grow, and it’s not realistic to expect women to retain a pre-pubescent body. As a result of this, a lot of ballet dancers experience indirect body shaming, such as small comments like, “I can see your dinner in your tummy”. It’s an issue that really isn’t discussed enough, especially when you think about the ramifications it can have on children’s mental health.
 
In my own experience, as I’ve danced more and built my strength, this has been reflected in my muscle growth; however, this is thought of as unappealing for a ballet dancer. The physical requirements to be a ballet dancer directly contradict the ability we’re also expected to have.
 
As we train more, we will inevitably grow muscle; however, this is a physical attribute that is disliked in the ballet world. I find it crazy that in 2022, this is still something that dancers have to contend with. You shouldn’t be assessed on your body, because this mentality completely overlooks your ability and passion. I really want to break this stigma. 

What has the feedback from this campaign been like?

Although the campaign originated from UEA Ballet, it has since extended to other sports where tight fitting clothing is worn, such as cycling, gymnastics, surfing, and so on. We’ve had great feedback and I think that’s because it’s a conversation that many people can relate to. It’s incredible that we’ve been able to build a community who can understand and share this stigma. I also led a workshop with my Ballet club members where we came together and discussed our experiences of indirect body shaming. There was no pressure on people to get involved, and anonymity was welcomed, but so many people opened up. It felt so special to me that my members felt comfortable to share their thoughts and feelings. Equally, this is a campaign that is also relevant to men. In ballet in particular, men are also subjected to a long list of physical criteria and in UEA Ballet we have male members who are also involved in Love Your Leo(tard) as a result!

What’s your favourite thing about being UEA Ballet President?

There are so many things, it’s so hard to pinpoint just one! 

It’s just a great feeling that in UEA Ballet we have a wonderful community of dancers; this is something I instantly felt when I joined the club as a fresher. It’s such an uplifting and positive community, and to know that I’m enabling that in every social we do, class we have, or conversation we engage in, that just feels great. The sense of community we have and the fact that I help facilitate that is so special to me.

In terms of the campaign this year, I’m also really proud of the outreach success. We’ve taken the campaign nationally and internationally, and it means so much to me that so many people are engaging in these conversations. Dance really is about what you’re doing, not what you look like. I want to empower my members to feel strong and elegant, and this campaign articulates that message perfectly.


To see more of the Love Your Leo(tard) campaign, check out UEA Ballet’s Instagram page.

And to donate to BEAT and Eating matters, check out UEA Ballet’s gofundme page.