Sharp bending of double-stranded DNA (dsDNA) plays an essential role in genome structure and function. However, the elastic limit of dsDNA bending remains controversial. Here, we measured the opening rates of small dsDNA loops with contour lengths ranging between 40 and 200 bp using single-molecule Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer. The relationship of loop lifetime to loop size revealed a critical transition in bending stress. Above the critical loop size, the loop lifetime changed with loop size in a manner consistent with elastic bending stress, but below it, became less sensitive to loop size, indicative of softened dsDNA. The critical loop size increased from ∼ 60 bp to ∼ 100 bp with the addition of 5 mM magnesium. We show that our result is in quantitative agreement with the kinkable worm-like chain model, and furthermore, can reproduce previously reported looping probabilities of dsDNA over the range between 50 and 200 bp. Our findings shed new light on the energetics of sharply bent dsDNA.