What’s the big- or not so big- deal with eating disorders in ballet?

It can be difficult getting to “The Truth” when it comes to eating disorders in the ballet world. If you research the topic, you’ll find three main approaches: firstly, grim depictions of how ballet directors are maniacal about thinness, driving dancers to extremes. In response to this, there are flat-out denials that eating disorders are that much of a problem, citing that almost all dancers are naturally thin, and those with problems are in the minority. Alongside this there are articles singing praises for how much more open the ballet world is about eating disorders these days, how much easier it is to get help, and how much more accepting companies are of different body types than they have been in the past. What you won’t find is facts. There figures vary from “one in five” classical ballet dancers suffering from eating disorders, approximations that “about half” of dancers from a certain generation in a certain company were anorexic, and that dancers are “ten times more likely” to get an eating disorder than the rest of the population. What do we know? We do know that eating disorders are significantly more prevalent in the world of classical ballet than in the wider population. It is a problem- is it as much of a problem as some sources say? That is a bigger question. So without all the hyperbole, what is the real issue?

This is how it is- ballet requires a certain body type and weight. By this, I do not mean that dancers must be ultra-thin. Ballet dancers must not be clinically overweight as this would put a great deal of strain on the feet when dancing en pointe, and on the joins in general from the already strenuous demands of classical technique. Further to this, dancers must be even slimmer than most people, because they need to be light enough to be lifted safely. This is not just a debate about aesthetics- you cannot expect male dancers to put their bodies and careers at risk because they are constantly carrying out lifts which are damaging to them. However, whilst this demands a rather slender physique, it does not mean that dancers must have an emaciated appearance. This is a preference issue- over the years, ballet has evolved, and thinness has become more fashionable. Many blame Balanchine and his love of slender lines for this; he may have set the standard for the “ideal” ballet body, and it is an ideal that is held by almost all companies to this day. Here’s what we know for sure: ballet favours thinness. We may go through a total revolution in the next few years, and all the ideals may be thrown out the window, with all companies and schools embracing different body types. However, the biggest dancers you would see would still be pretty slim, because the physical demands of ballet (especially in the modern age, with such daring moves as a one-handed overhead lift) mean that one must be a certain weight to dance professionally. Okay, so now we have deciphered that nugget of factual information from all the contradictory messages, let’s move on to the next issue.

A need to be thin is not all it takes to perpetuate eating disorders. Many people will tell you that most dancers are naturally thin- this may well be true, although most dancers follow a certain lifestyle from a young age, making it difficult to tell for certain. We know that not every single dancer can be naturally thin, and even those who are can still be at risk of an eating disorder.

In ballet, the body is an instrument to the art form, and so there can be a certain bluntness about physique in the ballet world. The body is scrutinised and depersonalised. You are sharing your body with the audience, and in doing so you make it everyone’s business. This means that many teachers, choreographers and directors make blunt, offhand comments about a dancer’s weight. They might say to them openly, in front of everyone; “You are too heavy. You need to lose weight”, or anything along those lines. This doesn’t happen everywhere but I’m fairly sure that every dancer will have seen a comment like this being made at some point in their career- I have seen it happen a lot. Ideally, when a teacher or director sees a problem with a dancer’s physique, they would have a sensitively worded, private conversation to bring up the issue and offer correct support. However, this doesn’t always happen- in fact, I’d day it’s rare. Most dancers take these comments impersonally, but at certain institutions dancers might become barraged with constant remarks, which depending on their mental state can create problems. Young teenage girls, who are already self-conscious about their changing bodies, are particularly susceptible.

So, ballet requires a certain body type, but there is also insensitivity about weight in the ballet world. It is easy, as an outsider, to attribute this as a major cause of eating disorders- anyone who has had a comment made about their weight knows how hurtful it can be, and how long those feelings can stay with you. However, most dancers take these comments as professional, rather than personal criticism, and see it as something to work on in the same way they would work on their arabesque.

I was once called ‘big’ by my ballet teacher (who speaks very little English so this is the best he could do) and told that I should go running to lose weight (there was some miming involved in articulating that part). It didn’t bother me- I know that I need to lose weight for the sake of my career. The same week, I was eating a croissant because I didn’t have time for breakfast (I never usually eat such an unhealthy breakfast!) when a man walking past said “You don’t want to eat that, you’ll end up like me.”, and patted his stomach. Although a much less forthright exchange, the fact that a stranger who didn’t know I was a dancer was commenting on my eating habits was much more upsetting, and I thought about it all day.

I would say that insensitive comments become a problem when they are made frequently to the same person, and especially if that person has not yet developed the impersonal mindset about their body (I’m thinking mostly of young dancers here, either in school or in a new company and eager to make an impression, or those with already low self-esteem). Even then, they are not a lone cause of eating disorders.

This next problem is one I see as a main issue, and this is that ballet in itself fosters an environment which is conducive to disordered body perception. For a minute, let’s forget all about the slender ideal, and pretend that ballet dancers are not under any outside pressure to be thin. In fact, let’s use office workers as an example. Imagine that your place of work decided that there was to be a uniform, and that uniform was a leotard and pink tights. Every day, you went into work in this unforgiving uniform, and compared yourself to everyone else wearing the exact same thing. Your differences are hugely magnified this way. Then imagine that two or three of the walls are decked out with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and you are encouraged to look in them to check your posture while you are working, and encouraged to use them to watch how others work. Even in an environment where thinness is not encouraged, this creates a preoccupation with one’s physical appearance, a constant comparison to others, and a distorted perception of flaws. In someone who is already predisposed to an eating disorder, this can be a real problem. In addition to this, ballet is a very demanding career- those who choose this path usually have certain attributes that enable them to stick to this from a young age. Most dancers are absolutely perfectionists, determined and very disciplined. The determination to succeed in such a competitive industry can result in an all-or-nothing approach and young dancers who have this type of personality, and spend all their time in such an environment, can resort to extremes. Surrounded by others who are very similar in this way, many dancers may have some disordered eating habits but do not even realise it.

Full-blown eating disorders do not just pop up because someone saw you in a leotard and called you fat. They are a result of a range of complex issues- there are genetic and cultural predispositions to eating disorders, and they are often the result of more serious emotional problems. Eating disorders are not just about weight- for many, weight has very little to do with why a person has developed an eating disorder. It is often a need for control, and in such a competitive environment, controlling one’s eating can be a way to feel they are moving towards their goals. It is often a way to feel in control when there are problems in someone’s life outside of dance- a difficult relationship or feelings of rapid change in their personal life, for example. Furthermore, a dancer who has lost a lot of weight may be complimented on their physique and even experience more success. It is perceived that they have worked hard to improve themselves for their art, even if this weight loss is down to illness (of a mental or physical kind).

Yes, there is more acknowledgement in the ballet world that eating disorders do exist. Compared to years gone by, it is more acceptable to talk about easting disorders and to seek help. However, many institutions still do not follow a proper procedure when discussing a dancer’s weight, and they celebrate thinness. They may not openly declare that they would prefer their dancers to be a certain weight, but it is clear to the dancer who sees that the best roles go to those with the slimmest physiques, and who get complimented when they have lost a lot of weight. It is my belief that the attitude towards thinness in ballet is a problem, but one that can be changed, and contrary to popular belief, I do not think that it is the biggest contributor to eating disorders in ballet. When discussing this issue, everyone focuses on times that dancers were told to lose weight, but I feel the bigger issue is the very nature of ballet which dancers face on a daily basis- the constant observation of one’s flaws, the daily comparison to others. This isn’t something that can be changed- dancers must observe their lines and learn from others in order to improve. They must be disciplined and strive for perfection. However, awareness of this as an issue is important. If this was considered a bigger risk to dancers developing eating disorders, teachers could teach students to be aware of these distorted perceptions from a young age, and offer them real support. Teachers should not be scared to approach the subject of weight- they should discuss it when dancers are young, before unhealthy habits set in, and teach everyone about proper nutrition and self-care, rather than singling out dancers and making them feel bigger than their peers. They should know the dangers of the mirror, and feel comfortable to talk about it. I feel that this change can happen.

This is what I consider to be ‘the big deal’ with eating disorders in ballet.

If you or someone you know is sufferring with an eating disorder, seek help.

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