Anorexia Nervosa: Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by obsessive weight loss or the inability for an individual to maintain a normal weight given their height, age, and build. Individuals with anorexia nervosa often restrict their caloric intake and the type of food that they eat as well as see themselves as overweight even if they are not. You can not tell whether someone has anorexia simply by looking at them as people who have larger bodies can also have anorexia. Symptoms include but are not limited to: dramatic weight loss, denying feelings of hunger, preoccupation with food, calories, or weight loss, comments about feeling or being “fat,” expressing need to “burn off” calories, strong need for control, inability to maintain appropriate body weight, limited social spontaneity, and food rituals.
Bulimia Nervosa: Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder characterized by binge eating and compensatory behaviors to counteract the effects. People with bulimia will eat significantly larger amounts of food than the average individual in a given time period then will proceed to compensate for their binge through methods such as vomiting, laxatives, diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, and other medications. Symptoms include, but are not limited to: appearance of feeling uncomfortable eating around others, dieting, disappearance or goes to the bathroom after eating, drinks excessive amounts of water or other non-caloric beverages, demonstrates extreme concern around body weight and shape, frequently checks mirrors due to belief that they have a flawed appearance, presence of evidence of binge eating, purging after bingeing, extreme mood swings, and skipping meals.
Dancers, specifically ballerinas, have significantly higher rates of eating disorders – ballet dancers are 10x more likely to develop an eating disorder than people who are not dancers
Why are rates of eating disorders in dancers significantly higher?
- Ballet puts an emphasis on looking “light” as females are expected to effortlessly “float” through the air as they leap and are lifted by male dancers.
- Ballet has a strong emphasis on physical appearance and is highly critical of every aspect of your body.
- Dancers spend much of their time looking a mirror and self critically analyzing themselves.
- It is very competitive to get main roles in a performance and for many of these roles being thinner is, or at least is perceived to be, preferred.
- Eating disorders require a lot of self-control and self-discipline. Dancers are very disciplined as this quality is necessary for learning and perfecting new steps and choreography. This overlap may make it such that it is easier for a dancer to maintain an eating disorder than the average person.
Anais Garcia: Anais Garcia is one of many dancers who developed and battled anorexia nervosa. At 21 years old, she is 5 foot 1.5 inches and weighs 105 pounds, a much safer weight than the 79 pounds she weighed only a year ago. She talks about how restaurants are “battle zones for [her], literal war zones” as she looks through a menu before deciding on a “safe meal:” a small serving of pancakes, reduced-calorie syrup, a small bowl of fruit, and black coffee. She outwardly states, “For the past five years, I’ve done nothing, but hate and try to disown my body.” Garcia began dancing at the young age of 3 and by the time she was in middle school she was dancing four to eight hours a day and was intent on pursuing a professional career in ballet. At the age of 13, she auditioned for the Baltimore School for the Arts where she was rejected due to her weak muscle tone. At 14 she was accepted and began to attend the Baltimore School for the Arts where she was continuously encourage to build “muscle tone” and that she was “too soft” which she took as code for telling her that she was “fat.” In her first year at this school, she lost 15 pounds and continued to lose weight due to the intense pressure she felt in the environment. Her senior year of high school, she was cast as Clara in the nutcracker, an an achievement that she felt verified that her lowering her weight was beneficial and that “being skinnier was better.” At 19 she became a professional dancer and over the next years danced for the Washington Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem while continuing to suffer from anorexia. She now explains that her body was “thin and weak” and that at one point, “[she] wanted to die.” Garcia eventually got the treatment she needed after checking into the Renfrew Center of Philadelphia. Her experience with anorexia, and the treatment she needed as a result, lead to the end of her career as a professional dancer.
A perspective from one of my friends at dance: “When you’re in second place, you are the first one to lose. Thirteen years of dancing, nine years of competing, and not one individual first place award. My dance teachers always advise that competitions are solely for performance opportunities and preparation for the big leagues (the professional companies); however, I need those useless, plastic trophies to validate my passion for dance. The constant belittling and deconstructive criticism from dance teachers and peers continue to eat away at my confidence; yet, I still feel obligated to attend weekly classes and rehearsals. I feel obligated to squeeze into pink tights and black leotards. I feel obligated to spend twenty hours weekly on refining my technique and artistry, looking in the mirror analyzing every flaw on my body for hours on end. I somehow feel obligated to something that simultaneously comprises and robs me of my identity at the same time. Dance forced me to hate my appearance because I don’t have an anorexically toned ballet body. Dance forced me to be interminably judged by peers and teachers because dancing can always improve. Dance forced me to be silent and obedient to others even if I felt uncomfortable or upset. The stereotypical body type required for ballet dancers detail a lean, toned physique with long legs and arms, ideally between 85 to 130 pounds. My appearance is clearly unsuitable for that description, so for the past couple years, I have become fully aware of the many flaws I possess. Believing that my body fit well outside a stereotypical ballerina mold, my eyes viewed life through a hypercritical lens. I began to hate the way my inner thighs touched when stood and the ripples of skin that formed on my stomach when I bent over. When ‘Oh my god, why am I so fat?’ became every girl’s complaint at my dance studio and eating scarcely became normalized, I felt the need to hate myself along with everyone else in order to fit in. I, too, developed eating irregularities due to insecurity about my weight. This constant routine of self-beratement transformed into my complete loss of confidence and destructive self-hatred.”
Why is this issue important to me and my experiences?
Although I have never developed an eating disorder, many of my friends have suffered from anorexia, bulimia, and have developed other mental health issues as a result of dance. When taking a closer look at the experiences of dancers, it is easy to understand why this is the case. For example, every January, many of the most well known dance companies travel around the country, and even the world, to find dancers to invite to attend their summer training programs and eventually feed into their company. Before the auditions, everyone fills out a form with the most basic important information, which for dance companies always includes your weight. Many companies won’t even look at you in the audition if you do not match the look or have the perfect body. In the most extreme case, there are some companies who require you to be a specific weight given your age to even audition. If you look at most companies, they are filled with very skinny dancers that match the stereotype you likely have. There is almost no other sport or activity where participants spend so much time looking at themselves in a mirror. Even if I don’t have an eating disorder, constantly looking at myself self-critically in a mirror is in no way helpful in improving my levels of self confidence. From a young age, I have been taught to be self-disciplined, but also self-critical as we are constantly encouraged to try to self analyze ourselves and decide how we can better develop the perfect posture, placement, extension, turnout, line, muscle tone, and the list goes on. Rates of eating disorders in dancers are significantly higher in dancers than in the general population and this needs to change.
Call to Action
I want to work with some of the younger kids at my dance studio to help increase education surrounding eating disorders. These mostly middle school aged girls are right at a point in their lives where they are very vulnerable and are also becoming more and more serious about their dance training, a dangerous combination. Increase in education around eating disorders may not be able to get rid of the issue entirely, but will allow them to recognize the warning signs in themselves and their friends quickly and therefore get the help they need. There needs to be more work done to educate dancers about eating disorders and proper nutrition as these issues are not talked about frequently enough. These kinds of programs should be encouraged and implemented at studios and provided for dancers of all ages, even on the professional level. I hope that after reading and looking at my project you feel more informed about the issue of eating disorders in the dance world. The best thing that you can do, is lose the stereotype of the perfect, stick thin dancer. These stereotypes, and in many ways the expectations that result, are what continues to fuel this issue. It is also helpful to remember and be aware of the symptoms. Even if you don’t know any dancers, eating disorders in general are too common. If someone you know may be expressing these symptoms and are exposed to similar stressful conditions, consider trying to help get them the help that they need as eating disorders are very dangerous.