More than 725,000 people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, 11% of these being male. The main eating disorders are Anorexia, Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorder (BED), eliminating EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified).Before the latest change in diagnostic criteria, it was estimated that of those with eating disorders, 10% were anorexic, 40% were bulimic and the rest fall into the EDNOS category which included BED.
In the dance world, these statistics are even higher. Society puts pressure on people to look a certain way in order to be accepted. In dance, the pressure to be thin is not only due to appearance but also due to performance. Dancers, especially those who take ballet, are often expected to be very thin. Young dancers look to dancers much older who have thin bodies. Dance places a large emphasis on physical appearance. Dance requires you to wear skin-tight clothes whilst dancing in front of a million mirrors for hours at a time. This environment can impact dancers views on their self and possibly lower their self esteem. Dancers constantly look at themselves and their bodies and compare themselves to others.
Many dancers also believe that achieving a lower weight will improve their dancing as well. Female dancers must be held in the air by their male counterparts in a series of long and strenuous lifts. Being lighter and easier to hold is desirable. Because extra weight changes the balance of the body, ballet dancers are careful to maintain a lower weight, thus allowing them to move easier and land softer.
Many people who suffer from eating disorders feel that the disorder gives them a sense of control. This act of self-discipline and structure is inherent in the nature of dance as well. Mastering a skill or achieving a low weight is a tangible goal for dancers. Some dancers have reported that being thinner than the other girls can give them an edge when it comes to getting a role in a dance. Having a sense of control over your body and your competition is powerful for dancers. These pressures are extremely relevant in the world of classical ballet, but that is not to say that developing an eating disorder is the right way to find success as a ballerina. In fact, it is just the opposite. Eating disorders destroy your body, leaving you malnourished and lacking in muscle tone and bone strength. Dance is a rigorous sport that requires an enormous amount of strength. A body plagued by a serious eating disorder is weak and not able to execute difficult leaps and skilful manoeuvres.
Studies have shown that girls begin to express concerns about their own weight or about becoming too fat as early as the age of six. Most dancers begin their high level training around age seven. These girls are dreaming of becoming professional dancers, and are doing so at an impressionable age. Feeling the need to be lean like their idols can significantly damage them both mentally and physically.
The dance world is tough and it can be easy to follow the rules of society.
It can be difficult to spot the onset or re-occurrence of an eating disorder when a person is of a normal weight. Warning signs include:
- Constant or repetitive dieting such as always counting calories, skipping meals, avoiding foods, replacing meals with fluids.
- Extreme exercise regimes and abnormal amounts of time spent at a gym to ‘burn calories’. Exercising when injured, in bad weather, exhibiting distress if not able to exercise, refusal to stop exercise for any reason.
- Evidence of vomiting or laxative abuse – frequent trips to the bathroom during or after meals.
- Changes in food preferences – suddenly refusing to eat certain foods, changing to vegetarian or vegan to avoid foods, claiming to dislike foods once enjoyed, interested in healthy eating.
- Avoidance of eating food or social events that involve food.
- Strong focus on body and body weight – interest in weight-loss websites and pro-ana sites, dieting books and pictures of ‘thin’ people.
- Development of repetitive behaviours – pinching waist or wrists, constantly weighing, excessive time looking at the mirror.
- Social withdrawal and isolation, avoidance of once enjoyed activities.
- Eating very slowly and denying hunger – even when the belly rumbles.
- Sudden or rapid weight loss or frequent changes in weight
- Complaining about being cold even in warm environments
- Signs of vomiting – swollen cheeks, calluses on the knuckles or damaged teeth.
- Fainting spells, panic attacks and dizziness
- Always feeling tired and unable to perform many activities
- Intense fear of weight gain
- Negative self-esteem and body image as well as a distorted body image
- Sensitive to comments or criticism about the body, weight or exercise and eating habits
- Heightened anxiety, especially around food
- Depression and other psychological disorders
- Black and white thinking – everything is either good or bad, no in between.
- Feeling out of control or hopeless
- Moody or irritable
Eating Disorder symptoms are as follows:
There are physical and psychological indicators of eating disorders. Depending on the disorder, some include: • Preoccupation with food, weight, and body • Unrelenting fear of gaining weight • Refusal to eat except for tiny portions • Dehydration • Compulsive exercise and inappropriate time spent at the gym • difficulty concentrating and focusing • Distorted body image • Abnormal weight loss • Sensitivity to cold • Absent menstruation • Rapid consumption of a large amount of food • Eating alone or in secret • Abuse of laxatives, diuretics, diet pills, or emetics • Depression • Shame and guilt • Withdrawal • difficulty regulating mood (sad then happy) • associated mental disorders: depression, anxiety, OCD and substance abuse • slow pulse and blood pressure • dizzy spells and shortness of breath • chest pain • electrolyte imbalances • stress fractures, broken bones or injuries • low body temperature • low energy or extreme fatigue • constipation and stomach problems • laxative dependence