Trigger warning: This story addresses body dysmorphia and weight loss.
Nearly every dancer who wasn’t straight-sized or stick thin growing up (as the dance industry would prefer it) keeps a mental notebook of horror stories that involve an influential authority figure making a blasé comment about their bodies that altered the course of their lives.
Alexandra Patrick, a 30-year-old freelance dance teacher and choreographer from Dallas, Texas, knows this intimately. As one of just two girls of color in her local dance studio growing up, Patrick hit puberty earlier than some of her peers, developing curves faster than her classmates. When she struggled with a position in ballet class, her teachers said, “It’s just because your hips aren’t made to do this.” On her first day of college classes, she approached a teacher to thank her for class, and was immediately told, “You and I both know you’ll never be a ballerina.” Unsure what to make of her noticeably-not-straight hair and muscular, curvy body, another dance teacher told her, “You’re my little wild woman. I want you to look like an animal.” These repeated microaggressions and belittlement inevitably chipped away at Patrick’s sense of self. But, as she loved dance more than anything, she did what she needed to do to keep pursuing her dream.
“I just loved the act of dancing, the act of performing, the rehearsals, the soreness, literally every part of being a dancer was my identity, so it was hard when people assumed I must play basketball. No, I’m a dancer,” Patrick told Jezebel. “Then they’d say, ‘Oh, well, hip hop must be your favorite.’ Actually, I liked lyrical and contemporary. I was constantly being labeled and put into boxes based on what people saw—not even based on my performance, but based on my figure.”
After decades of being othered both as a woman of color and as a person in a body that didn’t fit the “status quo,” Patrick had internalized the messaging that her body simply wasn’t right for the dance industry: If the industry wouldn’t make space for her, then she’d have to shrink to fit into it. Her weight yo-yoed to extremes. She auditioned for So You Think You Can Dance three times and never made it. Eventually, she stopped dancing altogether. For years, she had to watch the girls with long legs, washboard abs, and beautiful extensions—the ones dubbed elegant and graceful (who were often white)—book the gigs she dreamt about. Then, along came Lizzo.
As a musician, Lizzo has been a trailblazer for body positivity in every sense of the word. She’s been outspoken about swatting away haters who have said she isn’t fit enough to get through a performance or who were made visibly uncomfortable by a woman in a Black, size-neutral body who declared herself “beautiful” and “sexy.”
Lizzo also made waves in the dance industry by hiring a group of “Big Grrrls”—her plus-size or curvy background dancers, most of whom were also women of color. She created opportunities for the women who had previously been systematically shut out of the commercial dance world due to their size or body type, regardless of their talent. Now, with the premiere of her new Amazon competition reality series, Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls, the idea that women can be both incredible dancers and sexy at any size is getting a massive, new platform. In an industry where there was often only space for one token “big girl” on set, former and current professional dancers say this sort of body diversity is life-changing for women. Long overdue, the show reframes the narrative for women who’ve been repeatedly denigrated for daring to look different from the lean muscular body type historically labeled as the “ideal” candidate.
“I never thought I’d see a TV show where I could be in that room right now with those girls,” Patrick said. “This show allows me to be in a new fantasy world where I can think, ‘Yeah. I could be doing that.’” In other words, this changes everything.
“We thick and we pretty and we know what we ‘bout,” Lizzo says in one of the opening lines in the new reality series, which debuted on Amazon last month.
The show follows thirteen women dancers as they fight for a spot in Lizzo’s dance crew, which includes an opportunity to perform on the Bonnaroo stage alongside the Grammy-winning artist. Throughout the competition, the dancers perform freestyle solos, learn original choreography, and are challenged to see how quickly they can pick up choreography in high-pressure environments. Oh, and they repeatedly drop into the splits and throw back hand springs like it’s nobody’s business. Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls is a show about dance and a refreshingly joyful one at that, but it’s also a show about bodies.
Elena Rovito, a 27-year-old mental health worker based in Washington, DC, who also teaches Brazilian Zouk dance on the side, said one word came to mind when she first heard of the show: Safe. Rovito, who was actually tapped to audition for the show, recalled to Jezebel an audition she once went to for Disney where, out of thousands of participants, she spotted just one other plus-sized girl in the room.
“If I were to walk into an audition room full of girls like the ones on Lizzo’s show, on the other hand, I would just feel safe. I’d be like, ‘Alright, I’m home. These are my people,” she said in a phone interview.
Rovito noted that when she was growing up, there were very few plus-size figures in the media to look up to who weren’t there for comic relief, let alone plus-size women of color. Yet on Lizzo’s series, there’s a stunning array of women and bodies: A majority of the women are women of color and every single one of them exists in a plus-size body. While Rovito says that institutionalized racism and fat-phobia are intrinsically linked, seeing these women—women who look like her—celebrated in popular media is a triumphant start to seeing more plus-size bodies represented in the limelight. “I’m grateful that Lizzo was the one that’s pushing this message in people’s faces, saying, ‘We’re here and we’re not going anywhere,” she said. “You can’t shrink us down anymore. You can’t hide us in the back. Fat girls are here and we’re here to stay.”
Like Rovito, Meagan Pravden, a body neutral former professional dancer, was also sought out on Instagram to apply for the show. After she was terminated from the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders training camp because of her “stalky” body, she could hardly believe that a show on a platform as huge as Amazon, heralded by an artist as critically acclaimed as Lizzo, had approached her and wanted her exactly how she was. “I didn’t feel like I needed to lose weight. I didn’t need to go on a diet. I was welcomed just the way I was,” she said in a phone interview. “That was something that I had never experienced in the dance industry in my 33 years of existence. I’ve never felt that I can show up just as I am.”
Pravden used to feel that in order to make any team or book any gig, she would have to fill a casting director’s stereotype. Sometimes that meant being the short-haired girl, the redhead, the Hispanic dancer, or the bigger girl. Some auditions even listed height and weight requirements. If she didn’t check those boxes, she was instructed not to show up. Now, Lizzo’s series is giving women a blueprint to follow—proof that women of all sizes can dance at festivals and perform in music videos. “What Lizzo’s doing…we’ve never seen it before,” she said. “I’ve never seen the women that were cast on this show given these opportunities in Los Angeles.”
The trickle down effect of the mere existence of a show like Big Grrrls isn’t just helping women heal old scars created by a racist and ableist dance industry. It’s also helping young girls fast track their own dance careers. It’s offering a huge wake up call for the dance industry to take a closer look at their own internalized biases and start having those tough conversations about the often unhealthy body image it has glorified for decades.
Amanda LaCount, a 21-year-old dancer, choreographer, and body positivity influencer told Jezebel she was kicked out of her local dance studio as a kid because her body type “didn’t fit” the studio director’s “vision.” She didn’t have a single role model in the dance industry that looked like her, either. A decade later, she’s appeared on the cover of Dance Spirit magazine and even performed with Lizzo, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry. LaCount knows that as a “fat person,” people will assume she’s not sexy enough to dance behind a rapper in a music video; she also knows that she is sexy, and thinks the Big Grrrls are showing the world just how sexy all bodies can be.
“All of these wrong ideas about bigger bodies come from the stereotype and assumption that healthy and fit equals thin,” she said during a phone call. “A lot of people unfortunately don’t understand that health isn’t a size. Dancers are athletes and yes, we have to take care of our bodies because our body is our instrument. But when people see a bigger body, they automatically assume we’re unhealthy and lazy.”
More than anything, LaCount wants everyone to watch Lizzo’s show and remember that these dancers aren’t talented “for big girls.” These women are talented, period, and you’re only going to see more of them going forward.