Dancers, Disordered Eating, & Body Image: What You Need to Know

Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, several professional dancers spoke to the New York Times about body image in dance and how their relationships with their bodies had changed while rehearsals and performances were on pause. In many ways, the stories were not new; numerous accounts in professional and popular media emphasize the demand for thinness in dance and the toll that eating disorder symptoms can have on a dancer’s physical health, emotional well-being, and career. Studies show that dancers are at three times greater risk of having an eating disorder than non-dancers and have higher rates of body dissatisfaction, dieting, and dependence on exercise than non-dancers, and even other athletes.

Why are dancers a vulnerable group?

Perhaps it’s the culture of the activity itself. Many dance forms have traditionally upheld a specific aesthetic and body “ideal” that likely contributes to eating disorder behaviors and attitudes among dancers. Although the preferred physique varies between dance genres and is changing in certain facets of the dance industry, many genres overly value leanness, long limbs, and flexibility. Dance teachers and employers reinforce this thin body ideal by giving more attention and performance opportunities to dancers whose bodies fit their expectations. Dancers who are not naturally as thin may feel that their bodies are under constant scrutiny by employers and the public – and this may, in fact, be the case. Anecdotally, these individuals have shared stories of hearing negative comments and being actively encouraged to try to change their look (e.g., body shape and weight).

The training involved in becoming a serious dancer carries with it a great deal of body exposure through the regular use of revealing uniforms (leotards and tights for women and form-fitting t-shirts and black tights for men) and walls of mirrors in dance studios. These practices are meant to help dancers see and correct their alignment and form while dancing, but they likely contribute over time to increased body dissatisfaction (and are therefore different from therapeutic body exposure). Some research suggests that mirror use in dance not only negatively impacts body image – it is distracting and may interfere with a dancer’s learning in class.

This array of environmental factors may heighten dancers’ focus on their body shape and weight and lead them to equate thinness with success. Yet these variables alone do not tell the whole story.

Individual factors may also contribute to risk. Certain traits that may make a young person more likely to participate in rigorous dance training may also predispose that person to developing an eating disorder or disordered eating. Dance involves a high level of competition, attention to detail, and pursuit of athletic and artistic excellence, so it’s not surprising that dancers generally have higher levels of perfectionism than non-dancers and athletes in appearance-oriented sports (e.g., figure skating, gymnastics). These qualities tend to cut both ways. Having high and exacting expectations, for example, may help a dancer continually improve their technique or compete for limited job opportunities. But just as perfectionism is a personality trait associated with some eating disorders, dancers with higher levels of perfectionism also tend to have more eating disorder symptoms than those who are less perfectionistic.

Low self-esteem is another risk factor for eating disorders that is associated with disordered eating in dancers, and some research suggests that dancers have lower self-esteem than their non-dancer peers. Because of the time and dedication required to reach elite levels of competition, it can be hard for some dancers to develop a sense of self or self-worth outside of their identity as performer.

Likely, dancers’ heightened risk for eating disorders can be explained by a complex interaction between environmental, biological, and temperamental factors. A dancer who is highly perfectionistic and/or has low self-esteem may be more sensitive to thinness-related messages from their dance teachers and peers. Add a biological vulnerability to eating disorders and that dancer might engage in disordered eating behaviors to try to change their body shape and weight to fit the dance body “ideal.” These behaviors are dangerous and can lead to injuries and other problems associated with being underweight such as menstrual dysfunction, low bone density, and cardiovascular problems – all problems which threaten to disrupt all aspects of a dancer’s life.

So, what’s a dancer to do?

Dance is an amazing art form that blends artistry and athleticism in a way that has numerous physical and mental health benefits, with the potential to improve confidence and self-esteem at any age. At the same time, dancers need to be aware of the perspectives and behaviors that are helpful and harmful so they can continue to enjoy dancing. It’s especially important to stay alert to:

  • maintaining a flexible and varied diet,
  • limiting the amount of time spent looking closely at your body in the mirror during class,
  • trying not to compare your body to anyone else’s,
  • accepting that body shape and weight, much like height, is not fully within your control,
  • and remembering the non-weight-centered qualities that you admire in other dancers.

These choices can help keep a dancer’s attention where it ought to be – on important aspects of training, such as learning choreography or developing artistic expression and technique.

If eating and body image-related concerns become overwhelming, reach out to an eating disorder specialist for support. Don’t let mental health stigma in dance prevent you from getting help – you don’t have to figure out these issues on your own.

In turn, clinicians working with dancers should familiarize themselves with the unique demands of the dance profession to offer support tailored to this environment, while the dance community itself continues to take steps to reduce stigma and increase body diversity in dance.

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