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eating disorders in dancers

Eating Disorders in Dancers: How to Recognize and Address Them

Millions of people around the country struggle with eating disorders each year, but there’s one group of individuals that are at a higher risk for developing these conditions. Research from the Journal of the Eating Disorders Association showed that dancers are almost three times as likely to struggle with eating disorders than their peers. This number is even higher for ballerinas, who often feel pressured to remain thin. It’s an unfortunate reality that many dancers battle with weight loss and eating disorders. You may think that you’ll never have to deal with this type of problem because your students are young or just recreational, but the prominence of eating disorders in dancers suggests otherwise. Studio owners need to educate themselves on the signs and symptoms of eating disorders in dancers, as well as on the proper way to intervene if a student is going down an unhealthy path.

What Leads to Eating Disorders in Dancers?

It’s important to understand the atmosphere and attitude that cultivate eating disorders. CoachUp explained that dancers sometimes spend too much time in front of mirrors in skin-tight clothing, comparing themselves to other students. This competitive atmosphere, coupled with dreams of being a professional dancer, can often lead students to unsafe weight-loss methods.

“Every day before class, I would enter the studio and study my reflection in the mirror, wondering if my tummy bulged too much,” Sarah Badger, a lifelong dancer, explained to Dance Spirit magazine. “Sucking in my stomach, I’d vow that I’d become a perfect ballerina – no matter the cost. This early commitment to perfection planted the seeds for what would soon become a life-threatening battle with calories, the scale and my own reflection.”

What Signs Can Dance Teachers Watch For?

Sometimes students may feel pressured to lose weight outside of the studio as well, and the development of the condition is often outside of your control. However, the best thing you can do for your dancers is keep an eye out for any signs of eating disorders.

According to the Australia Dance Council, symptoms of eating disorders can include:

  • Sudden or rapid weight loss
  • Secretive eating habits
  • Refusal to eat in front of others
  • Moodiness or irritability
  • Obsession with body image and appearance
  • Excessive exercise
  • Changes in food preferences.

Keep in mind that individuals with eating disorders will go to extreme lengths to hide and deny their symptoms. If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, it’s better to voice your concerns than to let it be swept under the rug.

How Should Teachers Intervene?

If you think that something needs to be done about a student with unhealthy eating or exercising habits, the ANAD recommended that you create a plan for confronting the dancer. This should likely involve speaking to the student’s parents or guardians beforehand and finding a quiet and convenient time and place to talk. You’ll also want to gather some resources that would be beneficial to the student, such as local organizations that specialize in treating eating disorders.

When talking to a dancer who you suspect may have an eating condition, it’s important to express your concerns for his or her mental and physical health. Try not to focus on the dancer’s weight or appearance – instead, discuss nutrition and overall well-being.

More than anything else, it’s essential to be open and understanding when speaking to a dancer who has an eating disorder. Chances are that you have experience with the pressure dancers feel to be perfect, so be empathetic and listen to what your student has to say. Once you’ve established a level of trust with the dancer, you can work with their parents to get the help the dancer needs.