Body Image and Toxic Diet Culture in Dance Part 2 | Apolla Performance – Apolla Performance Wear

Body Image and Toxic Diet Culture in Dance-Part 2 with Ashley Mowrey

Toxic Diet Culture in Dance Part 2

Body Image and Toxic Diet Culture in Dance-Part 2

by Ashley Mowrey

Trigger Warning: Body shaming and eating disorders

In my October article for Apolla’s  The Muse, I shared my story of experiencing body shaming, negative body image, and toxic diet culture as a teenage competitive dancer. This month, we’ll dive deeper into diet culture and its effects on dancers.

The term “diet culture” has gained more attention in the last couple of years, but we still have a long way to go, especially in the dance world. Here are some common diet culture beliefs and behaviors I see in clients, studios, and companies:

  • Labeling food as good or bad
  • Cutting out whole food groups
  • Basing self worth and value off of size and weight
  • Looking down on or judging people with larger bodies or who eat certain foods
  • Restricting foods with higher carbs, fat, sugar, or calories
  • “Cheat Days” or binges, especially after competitions or performances
  • Weigh-ins
  • Body shaming and comments on bodies
  • Placing a high value on weight loss/praising weight loss
  • Working out harder/longer to “make-up” for cheat meals
  • Anxiety and obsession around food and available food choices
  • Using a person’s weight/size as an indicator of good/bad character
  • Constant thinking and/or talking about food choices and/or bodies

For more ways to recognize and resist diet culture, check out this great article from National Eating Disorders Association. 

Take a look back at your experiences as a dancer and in the dance industry. When have you noticed these things? How have they been normalized and even praised? From my experience, these ideas and beliefs were such a routine part of my training that I didn’t even question them until decades later.

Currently, the research on dieting and diet culture has been predominantly on the physical, not psychological, effects and harm. In their book, The Intuitive Eating Workbook, Registered Dietician Nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch explain “Since the late 1940’s, a large body of research has shown that the act of dieting promotes weight gain in a variety of age groups, from children and teens to adults” (Resch & Tribole, 2017, p.13).

In a recent blog post for International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, 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, explained the dangers of dieting for dancers. She said, “Unfortunately, because dieting has become so normalized in our society, it is often not recognized as problematic. Even worse, dancers may be encouraged to diet by peers, teachers, company leadership, and even healthcare providers. Dieting is far from benign. In addition to contributing to the development of ED/DE,[3] dieting can lead to nutrient deficiencies and negative energy balance which can negatively impact a dancer’s health and performance, independent of eating pathology. Dieting is also linked to lower self-esteem, increased body image dissatisfaction, and weight gain.”

While there is still a need for more research on the psychological effects of dieting and diet culture, a 2012 study by Penniment and Egan found that “dancers who reported higher TRL [thinness related learning] in their dance classes experienced more ED [eating disorder] symptoms” (p.20). In the research, thinness related learning (TRL) is described as, comments from teachers and peers about the benefits of dieting, social comparison between peers, conducting skinfold tests and weighing dance pupils in class and observational learning of dieting and restriction through teacher or peer modelling”(Penniment & Egan, 2012, p.14). The authors go on to 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 behaviour” (Penniment & Egan, 2012, p.20). Another important study to note is the 2014  systemic review and meta-analysis of eating disorders that found that dancers are “three times higher risk of suffering from eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa and EDNOS [eating disorder not otherwise specified]” (Arcelus et al., 2014).

With these findings in mind, there is a great urgency for us all to understand and practice the do’s and don’ts of commenting on bodies, as well as the boundaries for discussing food choices and weight with dancers. We will dive deeper into this area more in next month’s post about Body Image, Part 3 of this series. But in the meantime, you can check out Episode 2 of Apolla’s Beyond the StEPS series, where we explore commenting on bodies and discuss how to handle these situations. Watch the full episode on Facebook or IGTV.

We, as a dance community, must do the work to change diet culture and break the cycles of our past experiences and training. Whether you are a studio owner, company director, teacher, choreographer, dancer, or parent, there are things we can each do.

Here are some ideas:

  • Become educated on the dangers of diet culture. Here are some great articles, books, and Instagram accounts to get started:
    • Article by Dawn Smith-Theodore for IADMS about language to use (and not use) with dancers regarding body and weight.
    • Article on Recognizing and Resisting Diet Culture from the National Eating Disorders Association.
    • Video by professional dancer and nutrition coach, Melissa Cabey, on diet culture in the professional dance industry.
    • Intuitive Eating website and resources
    • Monika Saigal, MS, RD, CEDRD-S, CDN, on Instagram
    • Kristin Koskinen, RDN, on Instagram
    • Rachel Fine, MS, RD, CSSD, on Instagram
  • Heal your own wounds from toxic diet culture and repair your relationship with your body and food. This could be through the Intuitive Eating Book or Workbook, coaching, therapy, or working with an eating disorders specialist for dancers, like Monika Saigal, depending on your needs.
  • Practice the do’s and don’ts of commenting on bodies, in and out of the studio.
  • Model neutral or positive language and behaviors with how you speak about and act towards all bodies, including yours. Encourage the concept that bodies are instruments, not ornaments. Use language when teaching or talking about bodies that reflect what the body can do, not what the size or shape looks like.
  • Teachers/studio owners/directors: Be an advocate for diverse bodies. Ex: What kinds of bodies are in your company or in your lead roles? Who are the photos of in your studio and social media? Are there dancers of all colors, shapes, and sizes? If you order costumes, are those companies offering amazing costumes for all shapes and sizes? If not, speak up.
  • Studio/company owners and directors: Experts are more accessible than ever before via platforms like The Muse by Apolla Performance, Doctors for Dancers, and Instagram. Schedule an online workshop with experts to educate and train your staff, parents, and dancers on these topics. From there, you can create a studio culture and policy that fosters healthy bodies and minds.
  • Parents: You are your dancer’s biggest advocate. If your studio or company has any of the diet culture beliefs and behaviors listed above, that is a red flag and needs to be addressed. Your dancer’s physical and mental health is not worth the risk, even in the most elite programs.

Whatever your role is in the dance community, you can create change by starting with yourself and those around you. It’s time for us all to do the work to not only break the cycle of toxic diet culture and negative body image but to create environments that embrace body diversity and healthy mindsets for our future generations of dancers. Next month, we will look at the final topic in this series, body image. In the meantime, which action step from above can you take over the next month?

If you’d like support while you go through this process, or 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.

Chat soon!

Tribole, E., & Resch, E. (2017). Chapter 1/Dieting Leads to Weight Gain. In The intuitive eating workbook: 10 principles for nourishing a healthy relationship with food (pp. 13-14). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Penniment, K. J., & Egan, S. J. (2012). Perfectionism and learning experiences in dance class as risk factors for eating disorders in dancers. European eating disorders review : the journal of the Eating Disorders Association, 20(1), 13–22.
Arcelus, J., Witcomb, G. L., & Mitchell, A. (2014). Prevalence of eating disorders amongst dancers: a systemic review and meta-analysis. European eating disorders review : the journal of the Eating Disorders Association, 22(2), 92–101.

Ashley Mowrey is a Mindset Coach and Educator for dancers.  She holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Arkansas, is a Certified Professional Coach through Coach Training World, a trained facilitator in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Leadership Program for Women, a specialist for Doctors for Dancers, and a blog contributor for Apolla Performance. Ashley has recently joined the faculty for the upcoming Embody Dance Conference, coming Summer 2021 in Hartford, CT where she will lead workshops for all ages, including parents and teachers, on mindset tools. She is also a Team Member of Dancer, 360 and will be a contributor to their upcoming book. 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 to foster mental health and wellbeing. She sees clients in person and via Skype/Zoom all over the country as well as travels (mostly digitally these days) to studios for customized group workshops. Ashley has also been featured on Dance Studio Amplified Podcast, (Ep. 14), Dance Boss University Mastermind guest presenter, and episode 58 of Dance Boss Podcast. Head to her website for more information, or her Instagram for free tools and resources to help you build a healthy mindset to navigate the dance world at your best.

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