– This article was originally written for the Latvian Dance Magazine.
Eating Disorders. Have you ever thought about how weird it is that even the person most alienated from ballet knows that ballerinas struggle with eating disorders? If there are two things that the average person knows about ballet, it is that Swan Lake is a classic and that ballerinas struggle with eating disorders. That should say something about the severity of this issue. How tragic is it that this beautiful art form, which brings us and audiences worldwide so much joy, comes with such harmful connotations?
The topic of eating disorders is very broad. There are countless subtopics relating to emotional health, mental health, trauma, culture, body image, injuries, pressure, upbringing, etc… but for this article, I wanted to take a look at the root cause, and give some practical tips for every dancer. Whether you have an eating disorder or simply struggle with body image (which I believe to a degree, all dancers do), we could all use some helpful, caring advice on how to navigate the challenges of ballet culture as it relates to food and the body.
But to do this, I needed help. I am by no means a certified nutritionist or psychologist. I am just a dancer who sees a problem in the culture, who hurts for her fellow dancers who have developed eating disorders, and who herself struggles regularly with body image. So I reached out to Rachel Fine, a certified dance nutritionist to help us out with this very important topic.
Rachel Fine always danced throughout her life. Being in the ballet world she had a desire to have a balanced relationship with food. She wanted it to have the right place in her life so it could serve her well, but not consume her day and thoughts. So she decided to study nutrition. She is a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and Certified Counselor of Intuitive Eating. She got her Master’s degree in Clinical Nutrition & Dietetics from New York University. She has worked at several medical centers and done further research into arts-specific nutrition at NYU Langone’s Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. All that to say, she knows what she’s talking about.
When asking her about the root cause of eating disorders in ballet, her answer came as no surprise.
“Eating disorders all root from ideals in history. So, food and body ideals, in my opinion, are the cause. And then the teachers, the media, social media, other dancers, they’re kind of a funnel for that. This causes a lot of antiquated ideals around food and body to be widespread among dancers.”
Fighting historic ideals can feel like fighting a giant. It can often feel like it’s you against the world. Is change possible? Is it even our responsibility? Rachel points out that often discouragement comes with feeling overwhelmed.
“It’s definitely challenging. While in an ideal world, it’s awesome if we can change the minds of old school teachers, (and when one has the opportunity it is encouraged to (respectfully) speak up against them) but no dancer should feel the pressure of needing to change the industry itself. That is a lot of pressure for dancers. So much that it can even derail dancers from wanting to challenge the ideals at all, and perhaps cause them to fall into wanting to follow those ideals because it seems easier. This is when we see eating disordersdevelop. So while the first line of defense is, of course, to go to the root of the problem and challenge mindsets, challenge casting, and challenge any perceived weight bias at auditions, dancers also can work on themselves in regards to knowing how to navigate triggering comments, and unhealthy environments.”
Unhealthy relationships with food are so prevalent in ballet that, often, ballerinas don’t even realize when they have one or are heading toward one. But just because “everyone eats (or doesn’t eat) this way” or “thinks and talks about food in that way” doesn’t mean it’s right or good. And just because you don’t have an eating disorder, though that is wonderful, it doesn’t automatically mean you are healthy. In talking with Rachel she said,
“This is definitely a problem. It’s also a problem for the culture at large, but it’s exacerbated among dancers. Unfortunately, diet culture is so prevalent. So you do have a lot of dancers partaking in behaviors that they might not identify as being “disordered”. But usually, I would recommend if any dancer feels any level of stress or guilt around food, that’s a major sign that whatever they’re doing is not necessarily the best practice.”
The feeling of guilt around food is all too familiar for so many of us dancers. And think about it! Food is a necessity, right next to air and water! It should not be something we feel guilty about. But this probably means we need to re-get-to-know our bodies a bit. We have been forcing the body to not eat when it’s hungry, eat when it’s not, and eat what it “should” have, instead of what it wants and actually needs. This takes time. And it takes courage. And it takes help.
“The first thing a dancer needs to do is to start turning to qualified sources. The difficulty is that anyone can call themselves a nutritionist…It’s not a regulated title. The first step is for dancers to seek out a dietician, and a mental health therapist. Whichever one comes first doesn’t necessarily matter. But either of those two, professional dietitians or mental health therapists, or psychologists is the first step. And most practitioners, including myself, have a ton of free resources these days. So it’s not like they have to step into a huge financial burden. They can start with some free resources that are offered; whether it’s a consultation call, or perhaps like, myself, I have my blog dancenutrition.com, which has a lot of free resources for dancers. There is so much misinformation out there, it’s important that we first create a baseline of sound advice and information. And then really, from there, taking it in within the guidance of a licensed professional. That would be, in my opinion, the first major step.”
I had to laugh at myself as I was conducting the interview with Rachel. I was trying to get a “Five steps to becoming mentally and physically healthy overnight” out of her, which was echoing all the deceptive promises of “quick-fix diet culture”. Through our conversation she reminded me that no two bodies are the same, there is no “one size fits all” answer. That is why seeking the advice of a certified professional is so important. It also may be good to remember that our ballet mistresses and teachers are not professional dietitians, they are professional dance instructors. Also, your classmates and colleagues, are not professional nutritionists. In fact, they’re probably in the exact situation as you are, even if it doesn’t look like it. As well-intended as the advice of our friends and teachers may be, we need to hear them out with a level of caution.
“There are so many steps we need to take in terms of how we talk about food. The first thing I always go back to is encouraging the school and/or company, to start bringing in, again, licensed professionals for workshops, classes, etc. We don’t want to avoid the conversation around food, it shouldn’t be a topic that’s swept under the rug. But it does need to be a topic that’s brought up in the context of sustainability, rather than restriction. I hate to sound so repetitive, but it goes back to getting in a licensed professional into the environment. Because again, we don’t want to ignore these topics, because then they’re not going to go anywhere. We need to shift these topics into better conversations.”
In general, I think we all need to relearn how to talk about food. Like Rachel said, “shift the conversation” to something that will help us “sustain” each other. Many times, it’s not only the teachers who throw around careless comments not thinking about its impact on someone, but also dancers.
“I would say there’s no need to comment on anyone’s choices, or body it’s not anyone’s place to make those comments about someone else. I think it comes down to body respect, not just for yourself, but for those around you. That would be a great thing to put into practice, to strip away any judgmental commentary. Whether it’s a compliment, or not, I think it can be avoided.”
So why care about our bodies so much? Why swim against the current of unhealthy, unsustainable, unrealistic ideals? A big one for dancers is injuries. But also, the less talked about side is quality of life. Rates of depression, fatigue, loneliness, lack of self-esteem, and even suicide shoot up incredibly when having developed an eating disorder. There is also a much higher risk of contracting other kinds of diseases and sicknesses.
“The main thing is sustainability. I keep going back to that word. We need to make sure that our lifestyle is sustainable, especially because of the physical intensity of a dancer’s movements they’re more at risk for injury. And because of that, they can’t follow what the norm is. They can’t follow what the general population is doing because they’re gonna put themselves at a higher risk for developing both acute and chronic injuries. So that’s a big reason why we need to have these conversations and not fall prey to diet culture. I think a lot of dancers look at other dancers who are ‘successful’ on a restrictive diet but don’t see what happens behind closed doors. You don’t necessarily see how it will affect their future. We need to focus on our own journey.”
Overall, our bodies and our minds need us to fight for them. We have to choose to take these steps to get help, to get better. And remember that the problem does not stem from your beautiful body, or from your hunger pangs. It stems from unhealthy, unrealistic ideals that you were not made for. Recovering from an eating disorder is worth the work because you are worth it. Fighting the unhealthy food culture is worth it because we are worth it. And we are not alone, we don’t have to be. There are so many great experts out there, such as Rachel Fine, who offer a host of free materials to get you started on the road to healing, no matter where you find yourself at the moment. The guilt, the hunger, the tiredness, does not have to be your norm. You were made for more!