Eating disorders in the ballet profession are common. Ballet is an art form that revolves around the body, and it takes a lot of practice and dedication.
Often, young girls enter into ballet and stay through until they are young adults. As their bodies develop, they begin to worry about how that will affect their performance and movement.
Practices are often in front of mirrors so as to be able to view and perfect moves, but it can be detrimental to women and men who critique and compare their bodies to others. Ballet dancers’ uniforms are often leotards, and costumes are form-fitting, so there is added pressure to be thin .
“There is an unspoken competitiveness between dancers,” says ex-ballet dancer Victoria Ferguson . She now goes around the world to speak to dancers about her experiences and the warning signs of eating disorders. She shares that there was extreme pressure from teachers and peers to lose weight, and her attempts turned into anorexia nervosa.
Eating disorders are 10 times more common in ballet dancers than non-ballet dancers . According to Ferguson, her anorexia was noticed by a doctor while on tour with her company, and after a bone density test, it revealed that she had osteoporosis at the age of 22.
The Ballet Dancer Physique
Ballet dancers, both male and female, are typically expected to look and be very thin in physique. It is also expected that female dancers be “light” and “float” as they dance or are lifted by male ballet dancers.
Ballet puts an intense emphasis on physical appearance. Every aspect of your body is critiqued while practicing, rehearsing, and performing. Your body and movements suggest a story through dance.
Ballerinas spend a large majority of the day looking at themselves in mirrors at studios, evaluating their moves and their body. Competition is high to be in premium spots and to be thinner is preferred. The environment of ballet can increase a dancer’s awareness of their body, their shape, and that of others. It is often believed that additional weight can change your balance and performance.
Self-Discipline & Other Common Factors
Within eating disorders, control is everything. It is the sense of control over eating or not eating, the control over one’s body and self. It takes discipline to maintain an eating disorder.
The same is true of ballet. It takes self-discipline and control to perfect movements, and learn performances. Many ballerinas will work for many years before getting into a well-known company or dance troupe. The same characteristics are shared for eating disorders as they are for ballet. Rigid behavior, intense focus, and control.
Eating disorders can destroy your body. Anorexia, which is common among ballerinas, can cause gastrointestinal distress, heart issues, low muscle tone, ceased menstrual cycles, reduced strength and energy, and malnutrition affects .
Ballet is a sport that requires much energy, strength, and stamina. Many young girls begin intense training in ballet by the age of seven, when most distress around body image begins.
Anorexia athletica is also a phrase describing athletes who lose weight by reducing or restricting calories, and have a fear of weight gain or being obese . Diagnosis is difficult and societal pressures are extremely high for ballerinas to be dangerously thin.
In one study looking at the nutritional beliefs and diets of ballet dancers, a questionnaire was given to 45 female ballet dancers . Participants varied in ages from 12 to 21. Dancers reported characteristics of anorexia more often that their non-ballet peers.
Ballet dancers stated that they used weight reducing behaviors, such as fasting, bingeing, purging, and excluding specific food groups to try to lose weight. Ballet dancers also did not view carbohydrates or fluids as important for fueling or performance.
Warning Signs of Anorexia Nervosa
Warning signs for anorexia within ballet include the restriction of food and/or water, going a long period of time without eating, working out after practices that are not for ballet, and constantly talking about food, dieting, and weight loss.
Other signs to look for include bingeing and purging behaviors, as well as significant weight loss over a short period of time. Lack of a menstrual cycle for 3 months or more is another sign of a possible eating disorder. Complaints of exhaustion or fatigue are common as the bodies of those with anorexia are working overtime to stay alive and keep up with demands of ballet.
Oftentimes, anorexia can be difficult to diagnose within ballet as many of the symptoms can be mistaken for getting in extra practice, or being tired from a hard week. Regular checks with a physician are important for ballerinas, including testing blood levels, minerals, and bone density.
In conclusion, ballet is an aesthetic art and many individuals work to keep their bodies dangerously thin. Various dance companies, such as the Royal Ballet in London, have implemented health and nutrition programs to keep anorexia rates as low as possible. They have mandated meals and, if weight drops below dangerous levels, the ballerina is not allowed to practice or dance until weight is restored.
These positive changes will reduce the negative stigma of weight and body size within the ballet world, and raise awareness for the high risk of eating disorders in ballet dancers.
About the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.
Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.
References: Shoker, S. (2013, June 28). Ballet and eating disorders: ‘Unspoken competitiveness’ adds pressure to be thin. Retrieved June 20, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-22985310
 Eating Disorders Among Ballet Dancers. (n.d.). Retrieved June 20, 2017, from https://www.coachup.com/nation/articles/eating-disorders-among-ballet-dancer
 Anorexia athletica in pre-professional ballet dancers. (n.d.). Retrieved June 20, 2017, from http://easacademy.org/research-news/article/anorexia-athletica-in-pre-professional-ballet-dancers-a
 “The adolescent ballet dancer: Nutritional practices and characteristics associated with anorexia nervosa.” The adolescent ballet dancer: Nutritional practices and characteristics associated with anorexia nervosa – ScienceDirect. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 June 2017. <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0197007085800048>.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on September 2, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on September 2, 2017.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com