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:
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, 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:
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.
Ashley Mowrey is aMindset Coach and Educator for dancers. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Arkansas, is a Certified Professional Coach throughCoach Training World, a trained facilitator inTara Mohr’s Playing Big Leadership Program for Women, a specialist forDoctors for Dancers, and a blog contributor forApolla Performance. Ashley has recently joined the faculty for the upcomingEmbody 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 ofDancer, 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, andepisode 58 of Dance Boss Podcast. Head to herwebsite for more information, or herInstagram for free tools and resources to help you build a healthy mindset to navigate the dance world at your best.
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