Marina Harris, Ph.D.
Four ways to protect yourself from developing an eating disorder
Updated: Feb 25, 2021
We know that dancers are more likely to develop an eating disorder than the general population - at least three times as likely. It is a frustrating truth that is backed by data.
People who want to dance are likely to be achievement-oriented, perfectionistic, hard workers. And these traits are often rewarded and help dancers become successful. Unfortunately, these are also the traits associated with eating disorders. Add that to an environment that rewards lightness and thin bodies, and you have a perfect storm.
This isn’t new information for dancers. And yet, while we want dance institutions to directly address the issues that lead dancers to an eating disorder, dancers can take steps to protect their mental health and reduce their vulnerability to eating disorders.
Instead of continuing to talk about risk, we need to talk about prevention. That’s why, for National Eating Disorders Week, Minding the Gap is emphasizing tools for dancers to help protect themselves from developing an eating disorder.
Here are four, science-informed tools designed specifically for dancers.
1. Practice intuitive, flexible eating — and don’t diet
Athletes and performers are constantly bombarded with messages to diet in order to influence their body and their performance. So many people position themselves as nutrition experts, including coaches, fitness professionals, and parents. But it’s critical for dancers to get the correct information.
Dieting is the top reason people develop eating disorders. People who diet are anywhere from 5x to 18x more likely to develop an eating disorder compared to people who don’t diet. Dieting is especially detrimental to performers who need high energy intake to hone their craft and perform effectively. Alternatively, intuitive eating is protective against eating disorders.
It’s crucial that you eat regularly and sufficiently. Eat a hearty breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with snacks in between. A great rule-of-thumb is to never go more than 4 hours without eating. Eat a variety of foods, especially carbohydrates, protein, and dietary fats. Make room in your food repertoire for some yummy/play foods. After each meal and snack, make sure that you are sufficiently satisfied. Avoid labeling foods as good or bad — as a performer, your body needs energy, in whatever form that takes. You might even need more than you think given the physical demands of dance.
2. Practice body neutrality
Internalization of the thin ideal is another core risk factor for eating disorders. Some level of body dissatisfaction is normal, but it’s important to not allow that body dissatisfaction to seep into your behaviors.
Some have offered body positivity as a solution, but the problem is that this fuels the cycle of alternating between over-evaluating our body and then under-evaluating our body. It is too polarized — up too high and down too low. If we don’t love our body then we hate our body. If we label something as worthwhile, it can always be worthless. That’s why it’s important to instead aim for that middle sweet spot, and body neutrality is the core solution.
The concept of body neutrality is to avoid viewing the body or certain body parts as good or bad. It is the idea of separating morality from our bodies.
Practice describing your body in nonjudgmental terms. Instead of using harmful words like “ugly” or “awful" describe what you see using objective (rather than evaluative) language.
Psychologist Bobbi Wegner suggests focusing on the function of your body. She says, “focus on the strength of the legs, the consistent and determined work of the heart and lungs, the power of the arms, the thoughtfulness of the brain.” By focusing on what our bodies can do, we cultivate gratitude and appreciation. Think about all the things your body allows you to do that provides meaning to your life, like holding your loved ones, playing with your kids, or expressing your art. Focus on the function of your body, rather than what it looks like.
3. Separate your body from your worth
We run into trouble when we view bodies as a symbol of morality. A prevalent example in our society is inherently viewing smaller bodies as better, healthy, or “good" bodies, and larger bodies as worse, unhealthy, or “bad” bodies. This worsens body image, and it’s not even true based on research.
Your body is not something to be manipulated and tortured into submission. You only get one body, and you need to take care of it. I know it’s hard to think of your body after dance, but dance will end. And when it does, do you want a body that you’ve spent time hating, starving, picking at, and manipulating for years? I hope you can be left with a body that worked hard and was well taken care of. Not as an object, but as a mechanism by which you lived your life.
Remember that your body is only one part of you. It does not define you as a person, and it does not define your worth. Your body allows you to express yourself and your art. It’s crucial to remember that your inherent value (and the value of your art) does not diminish based on the weight, shape, or appearance of your body. You have so much more to offer the world.
4. Remember your worth is not contingent on achievement
I know it’s hard. It feels good to achieve, and we feel disappointed when we don’t perform at the level we want. And yet, it is crucial to remember that achievement and goals also do not equal your inherent worth as a person. And it’s important not to depend on achievements as our only feedback about how we are living our life.
Instead, pivot towards focusing on your values. Values are less like goals (goals focus on some achievable outcome) and are more about the process of being. Values help guide us towards the kind of person we want to be. For example, if you value human connection, living in your values would mean seeking out more meaningful relationships.
Our values are a guiding light towards creating a meaningful life. What are those achievements worth if you don’t feel fulfilled? Using the values framework allows us to disentangle ourselves from the constant striving towards achievement and all that goes along with it — the perfectionism, the shame, and the self-criticism. Paradoxically, when we focus on living life according to our values, it takes the pressure off achieving and we feel like we have more breathing room to pursue our goals.
For National Eating Disorders Week, let’s stop talking about the risk factors for dancers and start talking about prevention. It’s important to know that you can keep yourself safe from these deadly illnesses, but it takes special care.
The first step is to eat adequately. Eat a variety of foods and make sure you are getting enough energy, given the high energy output of dance. Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” and avoid labeling your body this way. Practice describing your body in objective, nonjudgmental terms. Remember all of the things your body allows you to do, rather than what it looks like.
And remember that you are a whole person. Your worth to the world is so much more than your body or your achievements. You exist in this world to contribute, not to make yourself smaller to fit into it.
Your body or your food does not have value. But you do.
If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, there are resources that can help.
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA): NEDA is the largest non-profit organization dedicated to supporting individuals and families affected by eating disorders. NEDA offers toll-free help to connect you or a loved one with support, resources, and treatment options. Call (800) 931–2237.
ANAD Helpline: The Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders (ANAD) also has a helpline if you or a family member wants personal encouragement and support. The helpline is available Monday-Friday from 9am-5pm CT. Call (630) 577–1330.
F.E.A.S.T: F.E.A.S.T is a global community supporting parents and families affected by eating disorders. They also have an online forum for direct support.
Maudsley Parents: Maudsley parents is a volunteer organization of parents who have helped their children recover from anorexia and bulimia through the use of Family-based Treatment (also known as the Maudsley approach).
The Emily Program: They have a hotline that can be used by those suffering from eating disorders as well as those who want to support them with inpatient and outpatient options. Call their hotline at 1 - 888-364-5977.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: If you or a loved one is considering harming yourself or others, support is available. Call 1(800) 273-TALK (8255).
Dr. Marina Harris is a specialist in eating disorders, sport psychology, trauma-informed care, and mindfulness. She currently works as a fellow at the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders (CEED) and the Carolina Athletics Mental Health and Performance Program. She also works to make mental health information more accessible through writing. Check out her blog, Letters From Your Therapist, on Psychology Today, or her website, www.drmarinaharris.com.