In this blog, Nicole Doyle, our amazing administrative assistant at Reclaim Nutrition, writes about why dancers may be at higher risk for developing eating disorders, as well as sharing her lived experience in the dancer world. Nicole Doyle is a current graduate student at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh Coordinated Dietetic Program, a Dietitian-To-Be and the administrative assistant for Reclaim Nutrition. Before pursuing dietetics, she was a professional ballet dancer. We are honored that Nicole shares her story with us today.
Dancers & Eating Disorders: A Far Too Common Pair
Research shows us that eating disorders affect approximately 12% of dancers, with a risk three times higher than that of the general population for developing such disorders.
If you or someone you know have received a diagnosis of an eating disorder, you might be aware that multiple factors contribute to its development. Unfortunately, dancers are exposed to risk factors at a significantly higher rate due to the harmful and often unspoken principles embedded within dance schools and professional companies. In this blog, I will discuss commonly used terms/phrases and highlight risk factors associated with eating disorders directly linked to ballet. Before delving into these details, I would love to share a part of my personal story and explain the significance of this particular topic to me.
My Story As A Former Professional Ballet Dancer
While researching statistics for this blog, I came across an article titled “Too Fat? Too Thin? Too Tall? Too Short?” on the website for Pointe Magazine. The article featured interviews with current and former professional dancers, as well as ballet company directors, discussing their views on body size and height requirements for dancers. Interestingly, one of the artistic directors interviewed for this article had also overseen my employment as a professional dancer. This artistic director expressed the opinion that dancers can appear unappealing when they are both ‘too fat’ and ‘too thin’. This perspective was countered by another statement, suggesting that dancers are aware of their peak athleticism. The interview concluded by asserting that a dancer’s ability to perform at their peak athleticism serves as the prevailing standard.
Interestingly, this same artistic director had subjected me to body shaming and prevented me from performing due to my failure to meet the standards they aimed to uphold within the company. The only time my athletic abilities were questioned was when I was officially let go from the company.
Regrettably, my experience mirrors that of countless other dancers.
Harmful Body Ideals in the Ballet Community
So many different body ideals permeate our current society, and the ballet and dancer world is no exception. Common terms used among students and professionals include “ballet body” and “in shape.” These phrases have been circulating and coined within ballet studios and theaters for decades, most often used to praise dancers for their thinness.
The archetype of the thin body type ideal in the dance community traces back to a specific choreographer, George Balanchine. Balanchine, who arrived in the United States in 1933, quickly became an extremely influential choreographer and co-founder of the renowned New York City Ballet. His dancers were trained to perform sharp, fast movements that masterfully synchronized with or shadowed the music, a hallmark of his choreography.
Balanchine would select lead dancers and cast members based on their physical appearance and then mold them to match his vision. The dancers he most frequently chose possessed attributes such as thinness, elongated legs, a long neck, a small head, and an absence of visible body curves. Balanchine’s choreography and vision were considered revolutionary and groundbreaking, ultimately establishing a new standard.
Balanchine’s perception of body shape conditioned countless dancers to believe that they must shrink their body size to be deemed beautiful and successful. Unfortunately, this mindset continues to exist today in the dance community.
Enforcing Body Ideals: The “Fat Talk”
For those of you that may not know, in the dancer community, the phrase “fat talk” is often used to describe a scenario when a dancer is reprimanded for their body size by someone in a position of power, such as an artistic director, rehearsal director, or coach.
Sometimes this conversation is followed by a threat of being taken off stage, pay deduction, or possible termination. Other times, leadership may try to incentivize the dancer by promising to cast the dancer in better roles or give them a promotion.
Either way, this exchange happens often enough that it has become coined as having the “fat talk” – likely occuring far more frequently than most dancers recognize, causing significant harm to their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
As we have seen, there are deep rooted norms that have been established throughout the dance community that significantly impacts dancers. Among the information noted, there are more risk factors that can contribute to increased risks for dancers to develop eating disorders.
Eating Disorder Risk Factors that Are Present in Ballet
Weight Stigma & Appearance Ideal Internalization
As discussed above, weight stigma and internalization of body ideals heavily influence ballet dancers’ day to day interactions. Reflecting on my own experience as a dancer, it often seems that dancers remain oblivious to the weight stigma and anti-fat bias that envelop them daily.
Perfectionism is built into the training of ballet dancers. Often, dancers spend 20+ hours a week working to perfect their movement and are constantly being corrected and critiqued. It is often encouraged for dancers to have an inner dialogue of constant corrective action and always pushing to achieve perfection in everything they do in the studio. It is no surprise that this will spill over into other areas of life such as academics, relationships, and body image.
Body Image Dissatisfaction
Dance studios are filled with mirrors, which teachers encourage dancers to use daily as a tool to self-correct and critique. Using the mirror as a tool can quickly change from having good intentions of becoming a better dancer to picking apart perceived flaws in not only dancing but in body size and appearance.
These are only a few among many, that stick out as main contributors I’ve experienced and have witnessed throughout my life as a dancer. For more information on risk factors, please visit, https://www.allianceforeatingdisorders.com/.
As we conclude, I want to reiterate why this is such an important conversation to have.
These unattainable standards are damaging to a dancer’s physical, emotional, and mental health. I know this because it has happened to me, and I don’t think it has to continue doing so. But it would be naïve to think that ballet can and will change at any point soon; the thin ideal is engrained in the very foundation of ballet! So, I’m writing this now to try to share that WE are not the problem, and I know how it feels to be told you are not worthy to do something because of your size. If this resonates with you, please know there is support for you.
If you are struggling in your relationship with food and would like to learn more about resources and support, we invite you to reach out.
Our Dietitian team at Reclaim Nutrition would love to support you on your journey to food freedom, body image healing and eating disorder recovery.
We are here, if you should need it!