My Thoughts on Dancers, Dieting, and Body Image

Our society is obsessed with body image. Everywhere you go, someone is talking about a new diet they are on, a new juice cleanse they tried, a weight loss “supplement” that is “working miracles”. Growing up as a dancer, I know how much emphasis is put on having the perfect body image and physique. I think we are probably the worst of any other group of people I have been exposed to, because we run around, scantily clad half the time. In fact, Female athletes in aesthetic sports (dance, cheerleading, figure skating, gymnastics) are found to be THE highest risk for developing eating disorders. It starts at an incredibly early age; I watch the 7,8 year olds I teach dance to spend half the class admiring themselves in the mirror. When I was on my college dance team, we would use bronzer to shade in our cleavage and paint on six pack abs (Of course, I would go the added step to draw on fake tri-cep muscles as well). And, when dancers stop dancing, it almost gets worse, because they are so used to being fit and the center of attention all the time.

I remember sitting at a professional dance workshop. The topic was “dieting”. The current girls on the team told us, “We don’t eat meat after 5 pm, unless you plan on working out, because your body will store it as fat”. And, I remember thinking to myself, “If THAT is what it takes to be on this team, then I am not really interested”. I remember girls who would “spill” their drink on their lunch so it was ruined and they couldn’t eat it anymore. I remember having friends who took some weight loss hormone and restricted their eating to 500 calories a day–and then passing out on the way to class. I remember watching a Youtube video on a girl that said her daily food regiment includes making “shakes” out of spinach and bananas and eating pine nuts throughout the day. I have known girls who drink coffee constantly and take laxatives to expel their food before the body can store it.

Our capitalist society is constantly throwing new diet trends at us. But, if there was a secret to dieting, there wouldn’t be so many different kinds. I believe that we are all gifted with different body types and we must learn to be accepting and not pin ourselves against other people. When people compliment me on my own physique, I always reply with, “Well thank you, I work very hard at it”. And, by working hard at it, I do not mean that I ration and count my calories. I make sure that I eat breakfast every morning. I keep healthy snacks in my desk drawer in case I get hungry. I ensure that I eat as many fruits and vegetables as I can. I manage my portions, manage my fast food stops, and try to manage my sugar intake. I make sure that I exercise at least three times a week and stay active. And, if I want to eat meat after 5 pm, I let myself. If my body stores it as one ounce of fat, oh well.

I believe we need to change our society’s unhealthy obsession with body image.

They say about 10% of college students suffer from an eating disorder. However, this statistic is only the reported, diagnosed eating disorders and does not include those who have an unhealthy relationship with food. Being a high school dance coach and knowing my dancers are going into this potentially dangerous environment, I feel it is my responsibility to be a role model instill healthy habits in my dancers. I make sure that I eat in front of them and that we plan team meals during. I don’t comment on their bodies and try not to make a big deal out of what size they are ordering.

If you are friends with me, you will most likely never hear me commenting on your physique; I may compliment your outfit or your hair, but rarely your weight, unless I am well aware you are engaging in a healthy weight loss routine. After watching many of my friends have unhealthy relationships with food and exercising to obtain this “perfect” body image, I do not want to perpetuate and give positive feedback to something that could be very unhealthy. Research suggests that hearing, “Oh you are looking so good!” and “Oh you look like you have lost weight!” will only reinforce the eating disorder/unhealthy relationship with food. Just to be on the safe side, I omit that from my vocabulary and repertoire. In my opinion, I would rather someone compliment me on my personality, my work ethic, my attitude, because those are intangible aspects that I CAN control–I cannot necessarily control the genetic body I was given.

I am not really sure what the answer is to solving this societal expectation. Eating disorders and unhealthy relationships with food/exercise is often not just a product of low body image, but also of some other issue, such as stress or trauma. Of course, we all have our vices that are presented in different ways–some people handle issues by trying to control their eating, others by drinking and substance abuse, some by exploding on social media pages. But, I think we need to work, as a society, to focus this obsession on dieting away from “weight loss” and “building an ideal physique” and more towards living a healthy lifestyle, with a balance between eating well, exercising, and allowing a dessert every now and then. After all, it is about building the best quality of life.

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