A Letter from A Recovering Anorexic/Bulimic Dancer

Today's post is a guest post from a woman recovering from an eating disorder.

I have tried to write this letter nearly five times already.  Every time I write it, it takes on a new personality of its own.  This, I think is directly reflective of how I feel about my eating disorder; each time I reflect upon my disease I feel something new.

I have been in recovery from anorexia/bulimia for nearly two years now – writing that seems incredible because it seems like only yesterday that I was dropping out of college and fighting with my nutritionist, therapist, doctor and everyone else who came in my path.  But it has in fact been two years.

I think most of us are familiar with eating disorders, at least in the textbook sense, but, unfortunately, many dancers, like me, are familiar with the real life versions.  I don’t want to talk about what it’s like to live with the disorder – it’s awful but it’s your only sense of self, it’s irrational but it makes so much sense, it’s painful but the pain doesn’t matter.  What I would rather talk about is what it’s like to recover from an eating disorder.  If we want to have a chance at anything in this world, eventually, we have to give up our eating disorder.  That was my first lesson, and I fought against it for a very long time.

Guess what?  I lost.  I had to give it up.  I thought that was going to be the hardest part, the first step.  I was wrong.  It’s what comes next that is the most difficult part – rebuilding your life without ‘ED’.  For so long, you pin all your hopes and dreams on this one idea; the idea that another pound lost is another step closer to – for me – becoming a beautiful ballerina.  Then comes the day when you realize this is not in fact the case.  On this day you are actually sitting on a couch in therapy not allowed to go within ten feet of a ballet studio and on a strict monitored diet that includes none, absolutely none, of your safe foods.  From here things get really hairy because on the one hand, anorexia has lead you to this couch, and on the other hand you are still pretty sure it’s the only way you can actually matter in life.  That, I believe, is the essence of the last two years of my existence, trying to navigate my way towards a ‘happy’ life while ignoring those little voices that say, “Anorexia is the only way you will ever matter.”  

Two years isn’t long enough to have figured out how to walk this fine line of happy but not sick.  I wish it were, because then maybe I would have better bits of wisdom for anyone out there still struggling with their own disorder.  What I can say though, is that every day it gets a little easier. Every day I navigate a maze of food choices.  Some days I want to say, “I’m not doing this today,” but there are also days when I invoke every coping skill I have ever learned and plan and execute a well-balanced food day.  I still look up restaurant menus before I go out, and cringe at the thought of an impromptu restaurant outing.  There are some mornings I wake up and the thought of squeezing into my jeans makes me want to cry.  There have been days when the thought of squeezing into my jeans is so daunting I call in sick, and there are also days when I don’t want to squeeze into my jeans, but I do it anyway and go on to have a perfectly fine day.  My point is, there are still bad days, but now there are also good days, and the good days are slowly becoming more frequent.  When I was sick, I isolated myself from my friends, dropped out of school and quit dancing – all I had was a diet to keep me company.  Today I don’t have a diet, but I do have a life which I’m beginning to think is a little more enticing. 

Margie is 23 years old, a beautiful dancer and a senior psychology major at SCSU. She is a member of Elm City Dance Collective, a New Haven based modern dance company. Following graduation she will go on to graduate school to receive a Ph. D in clinical psychology. 

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Eating Disorders: How Can Dance Educators and Parents Lower the Risk?

"The mirror is not you, the mirror is you looking at yourself."   - George Balanchine

Dancers compete individually in an aesthetic sport, placing them in the high-risk category for developing an eating disorder.  What can dance educators and parents do to lower the risk for their dancers and children?

Education is the key to helping prevent eating disorders from occurring.  Pretending they do not exist, or trying not to draw attention to them, will not make them disappear.  It is important to teach dancers that diets do not work.  Diets are quick fixes, do not have long-term benefits and wreak havoc with the body’s physiology.  (see the post What's Happening on the Inside?)  It is important for dancers to learn about nutrition, making healthy food choices and what is considered a healthy weight.

            Dancers need to be taught to care for and respect their bodies, but attention also needs to be drawn to dancers’ achievements.  Positive teaching styles that praise enthusiasm, passion and motivation focus attention on the whole dancer rather than simply the shape in the mirror.

            Educators need to be cautious about commenting upon a student’s weight loss.  If a student loses a significant amount of weight, it is important that the educator not be too eager to tell the student how “good” he/she looks.  The teacher should comment instead on how fit the dancer looks and inquire about how the dancer is feeling and his/her energy level.  The teacher can then use the answers to gauge whether or not a problem might be brewing.

            Parents and educators need to have a basic knowledge of eating disorder warning signs and know where to turn for help should the need occur.  Lastly, parents and educators need to remember that they are powerful role models.  It is important that dancers do not hear them expressing dissatisfaction with their own bodies or weight.  Dance educators need to create an environment in the studio that bases self-worth on something other than body size and shape.

            Dancers are athletes that need to be healthy.  It is the responsibility of the adults in their lives to help them understand that dancers should not define themselves by numbers on a scale or the number of calories they consume and that skinny is not a synonym for healthy.


For more information on all aspects of eating disorders please visit National Eating Disorders Association or call the NEDA helpline at:  1-800-931-2237. 

This week is the final week for our contest.  You have until 11:59 PM (EST) on February 29 to be entered to win an autographed copy of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook.  Simply leave a comment below and you'll be entered!  Click here for the official rules.

Eating Disorders: What's Happening on the Inside?

“Do I want to die from the inside out or the outside in?”
― Laurie Halse Anderson, Wintergirls

The human body is amazing and will go to great lengths to protect itself, and that is exactly why eating disorders are so devastating….

         Whenever a person “diets", drastically reduces caloric intake or skips meals, the body goes into survival mode.  The body instinctively believes there is a scarcity of food and, therefore, thinks it must conserve energy.  The metabolism (the rate at which the body converts food into energy) slows down so that consumed food will last longer.

         When diets become extreme, as in anorexia, the entire body slows down in an attempt at self-preservation.  The heart rate slows, and since the heart is a muscle, if activity slows down, the muscle begins to atrophy, or grow weaker.  The weakening and slowing of the heart causes a slower blood flow, which results in lower blood pressure.  These factors combine to cause fatigue, weakness and fainting.  Since the body believes there is not enough food to sustain its own activity, it will not allow the possibility of supporting a second life, and, therefore, the reproductive system shuts down.  Female anorexics develop amenorrhea (ceasing of menstrual periods), which can cause difficulty in getting pregnant in the future, and a decrease in estrogen levels.  The body uses estrogen to aid calcium absorption, and reduced calcium absorption leads to reduced bone mass, resulting in osteoporosis.  Restricting food means that the body is not getting all the necessary vitamins and minerals it needs to function.  Reduced calcium intake increases the osteoporosis risk, and decreased iron intake can lead to anemia, which causes fatigue and bruising.  As the anorexic’s weight decreases, his/her layers of fat are also reduced.  Without a sufficient layer of fat to preserve body heat, the body grows lanugo (a down-like covering of hair) over its entirety in an effort to stay warm.

Those suffering from bulimia are constantly bingeing on food and then purging the body of it.  This behavior keeps the body from absorbing necessary nutrients and causes electrolyte and chemical imbalances.  Sodium and chloride regulate fluid levels in the body, and when there is an imbalance in these minerals, dehydration can occur.  Sodium is also responsible for generating electrical impulses.  A sodium imbalance can be responsible for nervous system malfunctions. Potassium is used by the body to regulate heart rate and muscle function.  Too much or too little potassium can lead to arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), which can cause heart failure.  Unbalanced potassium levels also affect the nervous and muscular systems, resulting in diminished reflexes.  The purging behavior irritates and inflames the esophagus which results in a chronic sore throat and can lead to an esophageal rupture.  The constant abuse weakens the stomach muscles making the stomach susceptible to ulcers.  A weakened stomach operates slowly, and food that is in the stomach remains there for a long time, allowing bacteria to grow and an ulcer to develop.  Since the stomach walls are weakened, there is also the potential for stomach ruptures.  Dental health is also affected, and the teeth become stained and decay from the stomach acids they are exposed to each time a bulimic vomits.  As in anorexia, there is a disturbance in menstrual function, and the reproductive system begins to shut down, putting the female bulimic at risk for future pregnancy complications as well as osteoporosis due to reduced estrogen levels.

         Eating disorders may begin as a small pre-occupation with food, but they soon take on a life of their own.  The psychological part of the disease drives the illness, but the physical destruction is widespread, not always reversible and can be fatal.

         My next post will focus on the role dance educators can play in helping to reduce the risk of eating disorders among their students and the resources that are available for those battling these diseases.

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Eating Disorders: What are they?

“The pursuit of perfection is, in truth, an empty endless cycle that leaves us emotionally and spiritually bereft, as a preoccupation with external appearance undermines inner beauty.”
 – Margo Maine

In order for our bodies to function optimally, healthy food choices need to become a part of every day life.  By adopting a lifestyle that uses nutritional knowledge to determine when and how much we should eat of which foods, we eliminate the need to “diet”.   A dancer’s struggle with body image, when coupled with environmental and societal pressures to look a certain way or be a certain weight, often leads to dieting which can be a dangerous road for any athlete to travel.  Suddenly decreasing caloric intake, while energy demands remain high, leaves the body unable to function optimally and can cause a dancer to feel inadequate, out of control and depressed.

            As this cycle progresses, it is very easy for behaviors and attitudes surrounding food, body image and weight to become obsessions and for an eating disorder to begin.  Eating disorders are psychological illnesses that can lead to life-threatening consequences.  In 1995, the American Journal of Psychiatry reported that eating disorders had the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and a study published by the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine in 2004, found that female athletes in aesthetic sports had the highest risk factors for developing an eating disorder.  These findings are red flags for the dance community whose members are susceptible to developing anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder.

            Anorexia is an irrational fear of gaining weight and being fat.  People with anorexia often restrict their food intake to the point of starvation, increase the amount of time they spend exercising, make frequent comments about being fat, grow anxious around food, find ways to avoid mealtimes and withdraw socially.

            Bulimia is an eating disorder that is also characterized by social withdrawal.  Bulimics binge on foods but then suffer from tremendous guilt and, therefore, force themselves to vomit or use laxatives to purge the food from their bodies.  They make frequent trips to the bathroom to allow for the purging and may change their schedules to accommodate the bingeing and purging behaviors.

            Those who have binge eating disorder eat large amounts of food, often in secret, but do not engage in purging behavior.  They, therefore, suffer from feelings of guilt and self-hatred continuously.

            Eating disorders are psychological illnesses that can develop either from issues with self-esteem, struggles with expressing emotions, a feeling of being out of control, feelings of anger, anxiety or inadequacy, a history of being ridiculed for body size and/or shape, perfectionist tendencies or any combination of these.  The reason eating disorders have such a high mortality rate is because, although they have psychological roots, eating disorders are manifested through physical behaviors that have detrimental physiological effects upon the body.

            Next week’s post will address what happens physiologically and what can be done to help prevent and lower the risk of eating disorders developing within the dance community.

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Dancers and Body Image

      Merriam Webster Dictionary defines body image as a picture of one’s physical appearance established both by self-observation and by noting the reactions of others. 

Dancers are given the opportunity to observe themselves daily in full-length mirrors while wearing only tights and a leotard and must learn to live in harmony with their bodies.  They, unlike other athletes, are constantly faced with the challenge of developing the muscles required to perform well while making certain that the lines they produce are clean and aesthetically pleasing to the audience.  Additionally, dancers are in constant competition with their classmates for the teacher’s attention or for a coveted role in a performance.

Therefore, it is not surprising that dancers judge themselves harshly and are extremely critical of their bodies:  their legs are never long enough, their feet are never arched enough and their stomachs are never flat enough.  In a 2010 interview about body image, Pilobolus’ Jeffrey Huang said, “Criticizing our bodies is second nature to dancers.”    One need only mention the possibility of wearing white unitards to a group of dancers to hear groans and observe the, perhaps subconscious, movement of arms being placed across abdomens to hide stomachs.

            In 1996, the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine published a very scary study about adolescent ballet students and body image.  When given a questionnaire about body image, all of the dancers overestimated their weights and the weights of their peers.  The study also asked dance teachers and academic teachers to estimate the dancers’ weights.  The academic teachers underestimated the weight measurements, but the dance teachers significantly overestimated the weights of all the dancers.  The researchers concluded that dancers are unable to view themselves and others objectively.

            If body image is based upon our observations coupled with the reactions of those around us, it is easy to see why dancers must constantly struggle with developing a positive body image.  It is extremely important that today’s dance educators be aware of the message they send to their students.  It is necessary to focus upon creating healthy dancers by: providing them with knowledge about their bodies and nutrition, helping them to feel comfortable with their bodies by discouraging the wearing of layers of clothing in class to hide who they are and encouraging dancers to acknowledge the positive qualities of themselves and their peers.  A wise teacher of mine once said, “If you don’t like what you see in the mirror, you had better change the image you’re looking for.”

            That is exactly what young dancers must be taught.  Dancers cannot possibly care for themselves and give freely of themselves to an audience without first loving who they are. 

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