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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