Body Image and Toxic Diet Culture in Dance-Part 1
by Ashley Mowrey
Trigger Warning: Body shaming and eating disorders
I still remember the day like yesterday. It was 2004, I was 17 and a Junior in High School. It was our last Production rehearsal before our first competition, so there was a buzz of excitement and anticipation as dancers of all ages, from Mini to Senior Company, were packed into the studio. We had just received our costumes...bright red bra tops and briefs.
Unfortunately, growing up as a competition kid, by high school I was already fairly familiar with calorie counting, weighing myself often, and feeling self-conscious about my body. I didn’t realize it then, as it was so normalized and familiar, but my competition company was rampant with toxic diet culture and body-shaming. There were always comments about food, the size of our bodies and weight, and reminders of our “problematic areas”, as if we weren’t already aware and embarrassed.
I should point out that this environment was quite a contrast from my home. My parents were both healthy and active. But food was just food, not good or bad. Bodies were just bodies, not fat or skinny. There were no comments about weight, mine or anyone else’s, or pressure to look a certain way.
By my Junior year, dance and the competition company culture was influencing my body image and food choices more and more. I was losing weight. A lot of it, and quickly. I was constantly counting calories and cutting out major food groups...all the things we as dancers are often expected to do to stay “healthy” and “fit”. However, I still felt I had a grip on reality and my self-worth and identity were not yet interlaced with my weight and size.
Praise from my teacher, who was also the Company Director, was rare. So when she stopped everyone mid-rehearsal and called my name I assumed it was for corrections. I’ll never forget the next minute, the one that flung me into a downward spiral of years of disordered eating and negative body image...“Everyone! Look at Ashley O!! Look how skinny she is!! Everyone notice how she looks in the costume!!”
Now, you might be asking yourself, “Wait, isn’t this what you wanted? You’re getting praised! You should be grateful. You should feel confident”. I get it. In our society, and especially in our dance community, praise, even on weight and body size, is often seen as innocent and encouraging. I’ll get into why this idea is extremely harmful in my next article, but for now, back to that day.
I remember thinking a few things during that rehearsal. Attention. I was finally getting attention from her. And praise. In front of the entire company. I finally did something “right”. I also remember having the teeniest tiniest voice, deep down, saying, “Hey, something isn’t right here. You are not healthy. You are not taking care of your body. This is...weird. And icky to be getting praised for eating less than your body needs.” But I couldn’t listen to that voice when every other part of me was saying, “YES! You did it. Now you have to keep doing it. Starve. Lose weight. Get praise and attention. Repeat.”
Over the next year, this cycle became second nature. I was all-consumed by my weight and what I ate (or didn’t eat). During that year, I started to notice similar behaviors in my friends and teammates as well. It felt as though that was the expectation and the standard being preached from the top, so many of us fell in line.
It continued to get worse, and soon a close friend in the company was diagnosed with Anorexia. Even after her diagnosis, the toxicity in the company culture prevailed. Shortly after my friend began treatment, I vividly remember being in the studio with our teacher and another student, as my teacher remarked, “She [my friend] looked amazing a few weeks ago. If only she could have stopped there.”
For a split second, I remember thinking how incredibly screwed up and harmful that comment was. However, this was my teacher. She knew best, right? She had the power. She’s an educator. She’s the director of the company. I trusted her judgment. We all did.
I’m not sharing my story to call her out, although I do hope she has taken time over the past several years to get educated on the dangers and harmfulness of this type of leadership and behavior. I’m sharing this because it points to a much bigger problem within the dance community. What happened to me and my friend is not unique. Studios and companies like ours are quite common. This could have likely been my teacher’s experience as a student as well. The goal here however, is to break the cycle.
As a Mindset Coach and Educator, I hear stories everyday about body-shaming, weigh-ins, nutritional advice from uneducated and non-certified teachers and parents, fad diets masked as “lifestyle changes” taking over whole companies, teachers promoting binge eating after competitions, and more.
In 2013 a systemic review and meta-analysis of eating disorders found that dancers are “three times higher risk of suffering from eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa and EDNOS [eating disorder not otherwise specified]”. Another study, published in 2011, found that “dancers who reported higher TRL [thinness related learning] in their dance classes experienced more ED [eating disorder] symptoms.” They explain that their findings are in accordance with earlier research that shows, “dance class related learning experiences about the benefits of thinness and dieting contribute to the formation of reinforcement expectancies regarding thinness and dieting, and the expectancies are the proximal influence on [eating disorder] symptomatic behavior”.
We, as a community and educators, have an enormous responsibility to become educated and make changes around body image, body shaming, toxic diet culture, eating disorders and the influence we hold regarding these topics. In my next few posts, I’ll be breaking down these areas and providing more research and resources. In the meantime, I’ve listed some resources below if you or someone you know is struggling with body image, body dysmorphia, disordered eating, or eating disorders.
It’s time for a big shift in the dance community and I’m proud to be a part of Apolla Performance, a brand so passionate about cultivating change and bettering our dancers. I'd love to know we all played a part in preventing experiences like mine from being perpetuated in our future generations of dancers. And no matter what your own personal experience has been, let’s take the time to heal our own wounds, make peace with our bodies, and create safe spaces for our dancers to do the same.
I’ll leave you with this, my favorite quote from Beauty Redefined:
“Loving your body isn’t believing your body looks good; it is knowing your body is good, regardless of how it looks. It isn’t thinking you are beautiful; it is knowing you are more than beautiful. It is understanding that your body is an instrument for your use, not an ornament to be admired.”
Monika Saigal, MS, RD, CEDRD-S, CDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in nutrition for dancers and the prevention and treatment of eating disorders.
Dawn Smith-Theordore, LMFT who is a specialist in the treatment of eating disorders and the author of the book Tutu Thin, A Guide to Dancing Without An Eating Disorder.
Lucie Clements, CPSYCHOL, PHD, MSC, BSC, FHEA and the director of The Dance Psychologist.
National Eating Disorders Association Hotline
Instagram accounts to follow:
Arcelus J, Witcomb GL, Mitchell A. Prevalence of eating disorders amongst dancers: a systemic review and meta-analysis. Eur Eat Disord Rev. 2014;22(2):92-101. doi:10.1002/erv.2271
Penniment, K.J. and Egan, S.J. (2012), Perfectionism and learning experiences in dance class as risk factors for eating disorders in dancers. Eur. Eat. Disorders Rev., 20: 13-22. doi:10.1002/erv.1089
If you’re interested in my work, head to my website to learn more and see how we can work together to build your healthy mindset to navigate the dance world at your best. You can also find me on Instagram for more free tools, resources, and inspiration.
Ashley Mowrey is a Performance Mindset Coach and Educator located in Fayetteville, AR. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Arkansas, is a Certified Professional Coach through Coach Training World, as well as a trained facilitator in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Leadership Program for Women.Ashley trained as a competitive dancer out of Dallas, TX before teaching and eventually directing a company and dance studio in Fayetteville, AR. It was during those years that she felt drawn towards the dancer’s mindset and the need for training and tools in the dance community. Now, as a Performance Mindset Coach, she is also a dance specialist with Dancers for Doctors. Ashley has also recently been featured on Dance Studio Amplified Podcast, (Ep. 14), Dance Boss University Mastermind guest presenter, and episode 58 of Dance Boss Podcast.