Finding the balance between health and body positivity

Most dancers I know are pretty obsessed with health: myself included. As people with such a physically demanding lifestyle, it is important that we are well-nourished and energised to get through each day, perform at our best, and avoid injuries. Dance as a profession also demands an especially slim physique, so dancers are usually keen to avoid foods that might cause weight gain. There’s also a culture of being interested in and excited by the latest health food trends.

This isn’t exclusive to dance: the health food industry is bigger than ever, and people are interested in the latest “in” thing for health. Social media has helped this along greatly, especially with the trend for “clean eating”. As pictures of perfectly curated smoothie bowls and avocado-on-rye-toast pop up with the hashtag #cleaneating, it starts to feel like we’re failing our health goals if we eat a cake made of sugar, butter, flour and eggs instead of from courgettes and date syrup.

I confess a level of hypocrisy here: all of you who follow me on Instagram know I’m an avid breakfast-sharer. The truth is, I love healthy food. Most mornings, I’ll make myself a bowl of porridge or yoghurt and top it with fruit, nuts, seeds and all sorts of things. I spend ages making a beautiful design, and snap it for Instagram. That’s because I find it really fun. However, I admit that I’ve succumbed to the fear that a lot of people have- I’m afraid to be seen eating food that’s not “clean”.

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As I’ve said, I love healthy food. I absolutely adore fruit, oily fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, salads, roasted and steamed vegetables, vegetable and bean chilli or soups with quinoa, smoothies, oats, organic meats, berries and dates. I also enjoy trying out the latest health foods, like coconut water, coconut oil, chia seeds, quinoa, spirulina; whatever it is that’s popping up on social media and in magazines. However I also enjoy bread, pasta, pizza, cakes, chocolate, ice cream and cheese. Sure, I don’t eat them as much as I eat the things in the first list, but I do eat them regularly (especially chocolate!). I probably eat a little something on that list each day. I try not to see the foods in the first list as “good” and the second as “bad” , but everything just as food, and I eat what I like with no exclusions, as long as each day I have included a good amount of nourishing foods. The reason I listed these foods separately is because even as I try to give up the “good” and “bad” food labels, I will never share with social media the foods on the second list.

If I go to a restaurant for a special date night with my other half and get a burger that comes out looking so delicious I can hear angels singing, I won’t put it on Instagram the way I will share a snap of my lunch-time salad. Why? Because I’ve fallen in to the trap of feeling judged! As a dancer, I’m wanting to be seen as healthy, and fear posting about these foods will interfere with that image. Even though the “good” and “bad” labels have been kicked out of my kitchen, they still exist on my Instagram feed.

I know, in my rational mind, that most people probably don’t give a damn about what I do and don’t eat. I ALSO know that HEALTH FOOD IS NOT HEALTHY IF YOU’RE SCARED TO EAT ANYTHING ELSE. A healthy lifestyle includes mental health, and if you feel like there are “good” and “bad” foods, you set yourself up for unhealthy thoughts and behaviours around food.

There are some good questions being raised about the “clean eating” trend, and it seems that we could be starting to move past it and gravitating more towards “real” foods. There are many accounts of people falling sick with eating disorders which began with a “clean eating” obsession. Does the ‘clean eating’ label cause eating disorders? In itself, I don’t think so. Eating disorders arise because of a complex combination of factors specific to the individual. However, I think it’s certainly a contributing factor, especially in the rise of Orthorexia, a fear of eating any “unhealthy” foods to the point of extreme restriction. This short video about the dangers of clean eating is a MUST WATCH.

However, this whole movement now extends beyond the food. There’s a lot of hype around fitness and strong, sculpted bodies. When I first saw the #strongnotskinny movement, I thought it might be a good thing. I thought that a healthy, fit body is a better thing to aim for through exercise, than aiming for thinness through food restriction. However I overlooked the dangers of this message. It’s still suggesting only one type of body is acceptable, whilst actively putting down another body type- the slim body.

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It’s not just strong vs skinny. I follow several fabulous body positivity warriors on social media. These people are celebrating themselves the way that they are, and encourage others to do the same. I think it’s fantastic, and I honestly think that all shapes need to be represented in more areas. In the mainstream media, we’re only shown a narrow spectrum of shapes, sizes and colours. However, I’ve noticed that bigger women specifically get a lot of hate online for “promoting obesity”.

Any doctor will tell you that there is a healthy weight range. Being significantly above this healthy weight range can put you at risk of a variety of health issues, ranging from minor to life-threatening. However- is body positivity a matter of health? I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t think so. Here are a few crucial points about this debate:

  1. You CANNOT tell whether or not someone is healthy by looking at them. Being thin does not equal being healthy. People can be healthy or unhealthy, and fit or unfit at any size. It is shocking that some feel they can go after bigger people online with hateful messages about not eating right or exercising, when in fact many do eat nutritious food and move their bodies, and equally there are a lot of slim people who eat a diet dangerously lacking nutritional value and don’t exercise at all.
  2. You should love yourself regardless of the state of your health! To say that you can only celebrate your body if you are healthy is to disregard all of the people who are suffering from illnesses and conditions. Fat-shamers don’t seem to consider this, but to attack someone for being unhealthy is to perpetuate the stigma against unwell people.
  3. We need to have more sympathy for states of ill health that are seen as ‘self-inflicted.’ The truth is, most people are the way that they are due to a complex combination of factors. Many people are much heavier or lighter than average due to health conditions or medications that cause weight loss or gain; many more still are suffering from eating disorders. It is no good hating on people who don’t look the way that you think they should, because you believe that they have inflicted damage upon their own health. You just don’t know. (Also it’s 100% no one else’s business, just saying).
  4. All sizes means all sizes. To be body positive isn’t to say something along the lines of “I am proud of my curves, I wouldn’t want to look like a twig anyway.” Many comments are made with the intention to be body-positive, but they shame thin people as being less attractive or make the assumption that thin people under-eat. It’s true that a thin privilege exists in society, but that doesn’t make it okay to put some people down in order to lift someone else, or yourself, up. All bodies should be embraced and celebrated.
  5. I also want to take a moment to point out that body positivity isn’t exclusive to able-bodied people. People with disabilities deserve to love themselves and have others appreciate their beauty too: that goes for visible and invisible disabilities or illnesses, and comes back to the second and third points. You don’t always know if someone is well or not. It is insensitive to firstly insinuate that only healthy people can celebrate their bodies, and secondly to assume that someone’s size is always a factor under their direct control.

What does this mean for dancers? It’s true that there are completely different expectations and requirements for dancers compared with the general population- I go into more detail about the matter in this post about eating disorders in ballet.

I still think that all shapes need to be celebrated in life and in dance. I think that dancers who look different to the ideal we’ve been led to expect need to be SEEN more, because I think that often they are just overlooked. Dance is about dancing.

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I won’t pretend that there aren’t size expectations for professional dancers. Even at my size, being a healthy weight, I couldn’t march into an audition for a classical ballet company and expect a job, regardless of how well I dance. There are lots of reasons for this, which if you’re interested in you can read about via the previous link.

There are routes that are more forgiving. Contemporary dance tends to represent more shapes, and commercial dance to an extent, although a significant bias for a thinner body exists in both. To the person determined to stay true to who they are, I think it is possible to make it in dance at a bigger size with perseverance and some flexibility. The talented dancer can find a job with the right company. For those who find themselves needing to slim down for the sake of their career, I recommend closely monitoring your physical and mental health during the process. Understand that you’re perfect as you are, and if you choose to change your body that’s fine, but it isn’t a requirement of being a good dancer. Continue to nourish your body with nutritious food, don’t overly restrict, don’t fear certain types of food or food groups, and don’t work yourself into burnout! That’s all easier said than done when under pressure to conform, but you owe it to your health and career to take a sensible approach, and you owe it to your happiness to accept yourself.

In terms of health and “clean eating”- it’s okay to enjoy and celebrate healthy foods, and to take an interest in health food trends. However I think it shouldn’t be done to the exclusion of other food groups. As dancers, it is important to eat well. That means getting enough of all of the things we need: protein, fats, calcium, vitamins, minerals, etc. I believe that it does NOT mean you have to cut anything out. Being a dancer doesn’t mean that you can’t eat bread, or you can’t eat cake. It means that you need to provide your body with enough nourishment to do what it needs to do: focus on that, and don’t worry about cake!

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What I’ve realised is that I’ve been unintentionally perpetuating some of these biases by fearing judgement about what I eat. From now on I’m going to strive to be honest about my food choices: yes, I love and eat a lot of health foods, but I also eat other kinds of food too, and that’s okay! I hope you’ll join me!

Jessica x

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