Striving or Starving? Dancers and Body Issues

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By Madeline Nyvold

There’s no doubt that many dancers are under constant pressure—the pressure to perform well, the pressure to devote themselves to dance and the pressure to keep their bodies in peak physical condition. These pressures, combined with the scrutiny of coaches, peers and audiences, often make dancers vulnerable to a number of body image issues and eating disorders. According to The National Institute of Mental Health, five to ten percent of girls and women suffer from eating disorders. This is a very real and serious issue, and awareness is the key to prevention.

While no age, race or gender is exempt from eating disorders; adolescent girls tend to be a high-risk group. Ascending Star Dance Team member and high school dance coach Thera Witte agrees.

“In my experience, I have seen more body issue images with dancers as they enter high school. At that age, they are very focused on the physical changes that their bodies are going through and how society says they should look.”

When considering the physical standards set by the media and their peers, along with the pressures of dance, it is no wonder that adolescent dancers are susceptible to eating disorders.

Though all forms of dance have physical demands, none are as rigorous or precise as those of ballet. A study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders that examined the incidence of eating disorders in members of several North American ballet companies found that fifteen percent of the dancers questioned had anorexia, while nineteen percent of the dancers questioned had bulimia. The physical requisites of ballet have not changed much; however, there is a growing awareness and efforts are being made to recognize and prevent eating disorders. For example, the National Ballet School in Toronto started a program in which its students met in small groups to discuss body image and health issues. After this program was instituted, the incidence of new cases of anorexia and bulimia dropped from approximately 1.6 per 100 girls per year to only one case of anorexia and one case of bulimia during an eight-year period.

The results of the National Ballet School in Toronto’s program demonstrate the important role awareness plays in the prevention and recognition of eating disorders. It is imperative that friends, relatives and coaches of dancers familiarize themselves with the indicators of eating disorders. According to the National Mental Health Information Center, symptoms of eating disorders include unusual or drastically changed eating habits, obsessive exercising or calorie counting, avoiding food or meals or consistently visiting the restroom immediately after eating. Behaviors unrelated to food can be indicators as well.

“A common sign of serious body image issues in a dancer may be always looking in the mirror to check her body,” Ascending Star Dance Team member Trish Gubson said.

Awareness and recognition of eating disorders is very important, but knowing what to do when confronted with them is equally so. Coaches are inoften in a position to intervene, and Witte details the best way to do so.

“Coaches can approach a dancer they think might have an eating disorder by being open and honest with the dancer. It is important to validate and listen to their feelings and not blame or accuse. Coaches should be mindful of all the different body types of their dancers and choose uniforms that all of them feel comfortable wearing,” Gubson said.

Other dancers are often able to recognize behaviors indicative of eating disorders as well and can help intervene. “ [They can do this by] being aware of their peers’ changes in weight, behavior and attitude, and being open and honest and able to talk about body image issues,” Witte said.

In addition, there are resources for those suffering from eating disorders and those who want to learn more about them. The National Eating Disorders Association’s website has information about preventing and treating eating disorders. By cultivating awareness among dancers and coaches, we can all take a step towards eliminating body image issues and promoting healthy minds and lifestyles.

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