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Eating Disorders in Dance

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.

Stories

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.”

Dance Academy is a television show that follows dancers attending a prestigious dance academy in Australia. Even though this show is fictional, this clip does a good job of showing some of the common symptoms that are associated with eating disorders, specifically bulimia, in this high pressure environment.

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.

Works Cited: https://docs.google.com/document/d/16ctZd-hAQWXYf28nhpL-qB8D6ww1SD0rvy0HkLGXTB0/edit

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COMMENTS: 22
  1. April 24, 2019 by Vivian.Fong

    Kennedy, amazing project! I really like this topic and am also really interested as I dance as well and this is also something I notice in my community. The video, your statistics and call to action really help add to answering the question as to why the rates of eating disorders in dance are significantly higher. After seeing your project, I’m considering working with younger kids from my dance studio as it is a great way to help remove the stigma.

    You mention working with some of the younger kids at your dance studio to increase education surrounding eating disorders, but how exactly would you make it happen? Would you educate current dance teachers so they can teach it to their students or would you call in a professional mental health expert or nutritionist? I think both have their pros and cons as training or calling in a professional will both require time and money.

    • April 26, 2019 by Kennedy

      I think that many dance teachers, even those that are aware of eating disorders, may not realize the affect that they are having on students. For example, in dance class I have frequently heard corrections such as “pull up” and “activate your lower abdominals” which when paired with low self esteem and this competitive environment can be interpreted as “suck in”. Small, seemingly insignificant sayings such as these may make some individuals feel as if they are being called fat without teachers even realizing it. For this reason, I think it is better to introduce people from outside the studios are companies such as mental health professionals and nutritionists. I think that these outside perspectives would be better as although these teachers may not realize it, their internalized values of the perfect body type may influence the way that they teach this subject matter. Even if I cannot do this at my studio, I want to at least work with the younger kids myself as I feel like I can provide valuable insight as I have had similar experiences to them.

  2. April 25, 2019 by Rebecca.Urato

    I love this topic! Disordered eating from dance is such a prevalent problem that is hardly ever talked about. As a dancer myself, I’m really glad someone finally opened up about this issue. It is great that you want to work with younger girls at your dance studio to hopefully raise awareness/create change. Best of luck to you and great job!

  3. April 25, 2019 by Jane Miller

    Kennedy, you did a great job discussing eating disorders and how they significantly apply to dancers. The two personal accounts that you provided, of Anais Garcia and of your friend, both helped me to truly grasp the mental impact that the certain body type standards connected to dance have on those girls. I was wondering if you think that male dancers develop eating disorders as well? Are they certain standards placed on the male dancers to look a certain way, or does that only happen for females? It was obvious that you care a lot about this topic, and you did a great job of teaching your audience how to make a change and why this topic matters. Great work!!

    • April 26, 2019 by Kennedy

      In dance, males are expected to be much stronger and have a more apparently muscle toned body. This expectation is mostly due the fact that they often partner with girls, lifting them across the stage, or can be seen executing impressive jumps. Although I would in no way say that male dancers do develop eating disorders, I don’t think this is as common. I also know so many more female dancers than males which in many ways limits my perspective so I cannot say for sure.

  4. April 26, 2019 by Lindsey Chao

    Hey Kennedy! I think you did a really good job with encapsulating what eating disorders in dance look like. Being a dancer myself, I have also experienced feelings of body negativity and low self-esteem because I didn’t think I looked like the dancer other people wanted me to become. Although I have never developed a serious eating disorder, I think that more people need to be aware of how people, especially dancers, develop unhealthy eating behaviors that can eventually lead to a serious eating disorder if those habits persist.

  5. April 26, 2019 by Megan Miller

    Hey Kennedy!
    Eating disorders are a super important issue especially with today’s social media and it’s really interesting how prevalent they are in dance. Though most people know dancers are usually skinny, many people don’t realize the pressures put on them and their appearances, and I think your project did an excellent job highlighting the challenges dancers face in terms of body image. The personal stories you included were very moving and helped me to understand the issue better. Your comment about how discipline overlaps was especially interesting because I had never considered the issue in that light. I agree that early awareness is a great way to help prevent the development of eating disorders and I really liked your idea about educating younger dancers at your studio. Great job!

  6. April 26, 2019 by Kyra Geschke

    Kennedy!! This is such a great presentation and brought light to an issue I was not too aware of. I think that this is a super prevalent issue in the dance community and after reading your project I can now understand what this stems from! In your experience, do you see this a lot more with girls or boys in the dance industry? I think that your action of bringing awareness to a young group is such a smart idea and will hopefully change the next generation for the better.

    • April 29, 2019 by Kennedy

      Hi Kyra! I don’t think that eating disorders are as common in male dancers because there are different expectations, but again, I do not know a ton of boys that dance so I have a limited perspective. Although males can obviously develop eating disorders as well, even in the general population eating disorders, specifically anorexia nervosa and bulimia, are much more common in females leading me to believe it would be the same in the dance community.

  7. April 27, 2019 by Kenna Luebbers

    Hi Kennedy! You did a really good job with this presentation, and as a dancer myself, I can unfortunately relate to the issue of eating disorders in the dance community. I love that you chose this topic because I feel like it’s an issue that not many people outside of the dance world are aware of. I also liked how you included stories from real people. Great work!

  8. April 27, 2019 by Addie Behrens

    Hi Kennedy! This presentation is so powerful and because I am not in the dance community, it really brought to light issues I hadn’t been aware of before! You did a great job on highlighting challenges dancers face with their bodies and including personal stories were so moving and further helped me understand how relevant this issue is. Overall, really great job!

  9. April 28, 2019 by Frieda

    Hi! Your project is so well done and so important! I’m also a dancer and I’m so glad that you’re bringing this to light. Just wondering, did you look into if boys have similar body dysmorphia issues with being muscular? I think the most important part is the idea that dancers spend hours looking at themselves and comparing themselves to their classmates in the mirror. That really takes a mental toll on people. Great job!

    • April 29, 2019 by Kennedy

      That is a really good question! I’m sure that boys do have some body dysmorphia issues, however I do not know that much about them. I assume that boys can also develop similar eating disorders as there is still a very prevalent stereotype that they also aspire to achieve and like you mentioned they also spend lots of time looking at mirrors trying to self correct.

  10. April 29, 2019 by Sophia Beardsley

    Hey Kennedy this was a great presentation. I think your idea of helping the younger dancers is very thoughtful and will be successful. If they can see your healthy eating habits their adaptable brains will see a healthy role model and hopeltfuly follow in your footsteps.

  11. April 29, 2019 by Cooper

    Hi Kennedy! This webpage was extremely thoughtful and well written; I learned a ton. I had always known about dancers and eating disorders, but I never knew how common it really was. The fact that dancers were 10x more likely than the average person to develop an eating disorder stuck out to me. This is extremely scary and it breaks my heart to know that so many young women feel terrible, hate their bodies, and are very unhealthy because of it. I wonder what you think an individual who isn’t involved in the dance world could do, beyond changing their own perceptions?

    • April 29, 2019 by Kennedy

      Since I chose to focus on such a specific topic, it is harder for people who are not directly involved with dance to maybe become as involved. In general, eating disorders are very common and I would recommend watching out for some of the warning signs that I mentioned as bulimia and anorexia nervosa are two of the most common eating disorders. Also consider the factors that make it such that eating disorders are so common in dance as they may be present in other parts of your life that you have not recognized.

  12. April 29, 2019 by Caroline Glahn

    Hey Kennedy! I think that this is an extremely important issue and I think you did a great job of presenting it. I think that the video from “Dance Academy” was really helpful in showing what an eating disorder would look like in real life. I also think that it’s cool that you got the idea from noticing a problem in your community and decided to educated people on it through the Catalyst Conference. Great job!!

  13. April 29, 2019 by Mason Harper

    Hi Kennedy! Your project was really well done and thought out. I had never known about the increased number of eating disorders in dancers and your project taught me a lot. I especially appreciated your openness and honesty about your own connection to the problem. Overall, really great job! 🙂

  14. April 29, 2019 by Sierra Erdman-Luntz

    Hey Kennedy! Thank you for this project. I was a competitive dancer and taking ballet classes when I first saw that “Dance Academy.” I remember how much it struck me, especially since a few of my teammates quit that year due to how the dance environment’s affect on their eating disorders.

  15. April 29, 2019 by Nina.Owen

    Hi Kennedy! When I was scrolling through the lists of GOA projects, I read your title and immediately, without any hesitation, clicked on it. I have been training in classical ballet for 14 years now, beginning at the age of 2. For the first 12 years of my training, I must say that most of these unhealthy thoughts were not ones I had, yet. My earliest memories are mainly ballet. I have always been told to watch what I looked like and use the 12-foot tall mirrors that stood before me to hyper-analyze and criticize my every movement. Whether that is taking a moment to exhale the nerves before beginning a variation or sucking in on a “bad day” because the teacher says they can “see your lunch” is the scale at which ballet works. Like you said, increasing education and awareness is helpful, but simply cannot accomplish much. I think it is most important for people dealing with these obstacles to get themselves the help they need so that getting help does not become something they want to resist if they are forced into it. I truly appreciate your project. Thank you for this!

  16. April 29, 2019 by Adriana Castro Colón

    Hi Kenedy!
    Your project was very captivating, you do a great job explaining the relationship between eating disorders and dancing. Having friends who are dancers I’ve seen their struggles, so it’s nice seeing awareness around the topic. People often praise dancers for their body types rather than their talent and are unaware of the type of image they are projecting on them. Causing unattainable body goal, which then turns into an eating disorder as you mention early in the page. Which again is why I think your project is necessary, informing people is how we stop this vicious cycle. Thanks!

  17. April 30, 2019 by Claire

    Hey Kennedy! I’ve been a ballerina since I was 4 and I dance around 16 hours a week now. Dance is super close to my heart, but its limiting emphasis on body image is something I struggle to make peace with. It’s really nice to see this issue being talked about, and I really appreciate your hard work:)

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