Eating Disorders & Dancers: A Glimpse of My Journey
The scariest thing about having an eating disorder is not knowing that you have an eating disorder.
That's the scariest thing to me, anyway. As I begin to write this #LoveNotes, my thoughts are scattered in a million and one different places, and I'm not even sure where to begin. So, bear with me because this post may be all over the place. I guess I'll start by telling you what disorders I have...or struggle with, because I feel that claiming I have it somehow identifies me and it doesn't at all. I struggle with anorexia, bulimia, and body dysmorphia. I look at those words in writing and cringe because there is nothing pleasant about any of it. Buckle up, y'all because I'm going to walk you through my journey with those disorders.
Admittedly, I had no idea that #NationalEatingDisorderAwarness existed until I was 16. This was two years after being diagnosed, but since knowing about this week, it's become another significant marker in my life. So, per usual, it's only right and just that I talk to you about it because it means so much to me to share things I'm passionate about with those I love. (& I love y'all!)
I identify as a dancer. I've been dancing since the age of 2 and have practically spent my entire life in the studio in front of mirrors. I was lucky enough to spend my first 8 years as a dancer in the same studio, which ultimately laid the foundation of what dance and being a dancer should be. At my studio, it was more than just dance. We were educated with academic courses as well, the most important being dance nutrition. My director emphasized “healthy eating; maintain a healthy lifestyle.” She walked us through the importance of bringing nutritional snacks to class and how poor eating habits would affect us throughout our dance careers. Other instructors reiterated her ideas, but added “it is important to portray a dancer’s body. We must look good on stage.” Older dancers that I looked up to took these words seriously—eating only fruits and vegetables before walking into class—and always arrived in leotards that accentuated the flatness of their stomachs. As a seven year old, I perceived “healthy dancer” as such and continued this belief far into my dance career. My instructors constantly reminded me that I was the smallest dancer in my group—something I took great pride in. When a dancer who was smaller than me was placed in my routine, however, I felt the need to compete to reclaim my “title.” I would stop eating complete meals and weighed myself at least twice a day. At seven years old, I weighed 39 pounds, one pound off from the CDC’s appropriate weight for a female child. My doctor told my mother I was underweight, but hearing that only excited me, it gave me something to brag about—I could count my ribs through my leotard. And I loved that. It meant I was a dancer. Though I did not realize it then, I showed signs of eating disorders that would not be diagnosed until 2010.
What most people don't know is that eating disorders can have an onset as early as 3 years old. Most will see potential signs between the ages of 7-14, and many will develop and resonate with one or more between 11-18. (I'm speaking primarily from a dancer's point of view and from research I've done in correlation.) Regardless of the onset age or the age that dancers identify with said disorders, there’s an importance in understanding that dancers are potentially at a higher risk for eating disorders. Compared to non-dancers, 50% of dancers are underweight and are reported to have lower body fat mass. Within this population, 12% associate with eating disorders— 2.0% with anorexia, 4.4% with bulimia, and 9.5% with EDNOS—eating disorders not otherwise specified. In general, the lifetime prevalence in women suffering from primarily bulimia, but also anorexia, is between 0.3-1%. The percent of eating disorders found in white ballet dancers was 4.4% higher than the 12% found in all other dancers. Then, the question becomes why is there a higher risk within dancers?
The answer is perfectionism.
The obsession with perfection falls into the category of sociocultural, best defined as “combining social and cultural factors.” We spend so many hours in front of the mirrors, it allows judgement from not just ourselves, but also from peers and instructors. We want to be "perfect."
As a dancer of color, I did not know that I had eating disorders because I've never seen someone like me have one. In the dance world, eating disorders are generally referred to as "A white ballerina's problem." How sad is it that associate something so serious with one group of people?
I wish I could tell you that I don't still strive for perfectionism. I've come a long way from where I was at 7 years old and again at 16, but I still catch myself wanting to be "perfect." I still get excited seeing a scale or hearing how much I weigh at the doctor's office because I just know that the numbers will make me happy. I stare for hours in the mirror coming up with ideas to be smaller. I skip eating if I feel that I've eaten too much throughout the day. Every day is not difficult for me--I have way more good days than bad, but when the bad days happen, they hit hard. If I'm being honest, I don't know if there's a true cure for eating disorders, as much as there are better practices to cope & heal with having one.
What I want from this post is to spread awareness! I want people to know that eating disorders aren't just for one group of peoples. They can occur among all. I want people to understand that signs can start as early as 3 years old and that they can continue to some degree for a lifetime. I want people to know that having an eating disorder does not define you as a person. I am not anorexia. I am not bulimia. I am not body dysmorphia. While they are parts of me, they are not me. Mostly, what I want is for people to know that they are not alone in their battle. There is someone, somewhere who knows what you are going through and who wants to help.
Please, be mindful of your words. Understand that calling someone skinny isn't always a compliment. Understand that telling someone they need to eat a burger doesn't make them feel good. Understand that there is nothing wrong with them, they just need help. Be kind with your words. Be gentle. Spread love. Spread body positivity. Spread awareness.
May your day be ever filled with love, light, and of course, an abundance of chicken tenders💜🌻✨