The Reality of Eating Disorders in the Dance World July 29, 2020 17:27
Posted by Kirsten Kong on July 17, 2020
(2020, SESSION 1, SHARPE, SPORTS)
HONG KONG – Dawn Theodore, a former professional dancer from Los Angeles, was 15 when she started to eat less and less.
“When I began comparing myself to others…the mirror became my enemy,” she said in a previous interview with Pointe Magazine. “The drill sergeant in my head…never stopped proclaiming that I wasn’t good enough.”
She developed anorexia, an eating disorder where people restrict food intake, consume laxatives, and induce vomiting. Those who suffer from the disorder often have a distorted perception of their body, overly focusing on their body weight, said Theodore, now a psychotherapist.
Over-emphasis on the ‘ideal’ body type can easily lead to lower self-esteem, increasing the risk factor for eating disorders. And these disorders often lead to other mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and loneliness, says Dr. Paula Quatromoni, an associate professor at Boston University.
Athletes tend to be more prone to eating disorders because they are placed under immense pressure to perform well and are held to unrealistic standards of appearance by family members, trainers, judges, and peers.
Generally, ‘lean’ sports have a higher percentage of eating disorder patients, including those who participate in gymnastics, running, cycling, and of course, dance.
Dancers are 10 times more likely than the average person to develop an eating disorder, Theodore says.
Dawn’s perfectionist mindset drove her to eat less and less until she developed anorexia.
“I did not see myself as thin no matter how much weight I lost,” she says. “The drive to be perfect took over my thoughts.”
The dance community tends to glorify extreme thinness, where aesthetic lines and curves play a big role in determining whether or not the dancer looks ‘pretty’.
“Dancers spend hours in classes and rehearsals scrutinizing their bodies,” Theodore says.
Even when athletes are putting pressure on themselves, they feel pressure from teachers or family members. “Coaches are seeking to motivate their players to work hard and achieve their potential and to win, sometimes, win at all cost,” says Dr. Quatromoni. Dancers who are constantly told that they need to lose a few pounds or go on a diet are much more likely to develop an eating disorder.
Another problem is the media. Research shows that social media plays a major role in pushing people to view their bodies negatively and developing eating disorders.
“The constant comparisons with others online…is pervasive and…absolutely toxic to vulnerable individuals,” says Dr. Quatromoni.
Dancers on social media are given the freedom to follow and view posts from fellow dancers, and they may feel that they don’t look as ‘good’ as those online.
Dawn, now a recovered anorexia survivor, has opened a dance studio in Los Angeles and is a psychotherapist who has been treating other eating disorder patients for the past two decades. She believes that full recovery from an eating disorder is possible, though it may be challenging, and getting treatment from specialists familiar with the activity is necessary.
“For dancers, it is important that the (treatment) team also understands the life of a dancer,” she says.
Dieticians, doctors, and therapists familiar with dance should be on the treatment team, as well as a dance trainer, if necessary.
Dr. Quatromoni believes that a support system is also vital to recovery. Those who are recovering from eating disorders should have people around them to rely on, such as family, peers, and teachers.
Eating disorders may affect anyone. “There is tremendous pressure in society to ‘look the part’,” says Dr. Quatromoni.