Ballet dancers are at an increased risk of developing eating disorders, in particular, anorexia nervosa (AN). This combination of ballet and anorexia is thought to be due to the highly competitive nature of ballet dancing, particularly amongst elite or professional dancing, as well as the emphasis on physical aesthetic and a light, thin body. [1, 2]
Other factors thought to increase ballet dancers’ risk of developing Anorexia include an increased likelihood of dancers (especially those at elite performance levels) having perfectionistic traits. This is a characteristic that is highly correlated to Anorexia Nervosa, as well as “thinness related learning” or TRL.
TRL includes experiences such as comments from instructors 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 instructor or peer modeling. 
Furthermore, dancers spend many hours practicing in front of mirrors where their bodies are closely scrutinized and with the ultimate aim to “look perfect.” Some have even gone so far as to say that eating disordered behavior is normalized and even highly rewarded in the ballet environment. [2, 4]
For these reasons, dancers who are in recovery from Anorexia face unique challenges.
However, despite these challenges, recovery is possible.
It is important to know that an eating disorder needs to be addressed, as it can be detrimental to a dancer’s short-term and long-term physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing. [1-4]
Ballet and Anorexia: Recovery Recommendations From a Ballet Dancer
Take time for recovery. Even with a demanding schedule, it’s important to prioritize recovery. This includes attending appointments with professionals who specialize in eating disorder treatment, including a physician, dietitian, and therapist. Your treatment team will recommend a level of care that will support your recovery.
It is important to follow this recommendation, despite its impact on your dancing commitments (even if it means taking a break from dancing). This is important for your long-term health and wellness.
Identify your triggers. Before returning to your typical dancing schedule and environment, identify what may trigger disordered eating thoughts and behaviors. Triggers may be things like overhearing fellow dancers talk about their bodies or having to eat when others may not be. Have a go-to list of coping skills and self-care plans that will help you manage these triggers. This will help reduce any risk of relapse.
Develop a healthy daily structure. Finding a daily structure means finding balance. It’s having a routine that provides regular sleep and regular meals. It’s a schedule that includes social activities that make it difficult to isolate, as well as things like making time for other passions besides dancing. Self-care is an important part of the daily structure — be sure to build in time each day to take care of yourself and manage daily stressors.
Get support. Know that when things get difficult, you don’t have to figure it out all on your own. Call in your support system — whether it be parents, friends, your ballet instructor, or a formal support group — for support around whatever is troubling you. Many dancers in recovery need support around stress management, the demands of dancing, meal prep, and/or mealtime support.
Consult with your treatment team. Work closely with your treatment team to address any triggers or challenges that may arise.
If you have any concerns, be sure to share them with your treatment team, as they will be able to support you and offer up individualized recommendations.
If you begin to feel like things are getting on top of you, like you’re not coping as well, or returning to old disordered eating thoughts or behaviors, it’s important that you reach out to your treatment team as soon as possible.
Work closely with your ballet instructor. For those dancers in recovery who are continuing or returning to dancing in recovery, it’s important that your instructor understands how to support you in your recovery.
Instructors should be aware of any recommendations being made by your treatment team and be willing to support you in following those recommendations. This is important for both your short-term and long-term health and wellbeing.
Sources: Arcelus, J., Witcomb, G.L. and Mitchell, A., 2014. Prevalence of eating disorders amongst dancers: a systemic review and meta-analysis. European Eating Disorders Review, 22 (2), pp. 92 – 101.  Dotti, A., Fioravanti, M., Balotta, M. et al. (2002). Eating behavior of ballet dancers. Eating and Weight Disorders, 7: 60. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03354431  Thomas, J.J., Keel, P.K. & Heatherton, T.F. (2011) Disordered eating and injuries among adolescent ballet dancers. Eating and Weight Disorders, 16: e216. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03325136  Penniment, KJ and Egan, SJ: Perfectionism and learning experiences in dance class as risk factors for eating disorders in dancers. European Eating Disorders Review 2012;20:13-22
About the Author:
Chelsea Fielder-Jenks is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Austin, Texas. Chelsea works with individuals, families, and groups primarily from a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) framework.
She has extensive experience working with adolescents, families, and adults who struggle with eating, substance use, and various co-occurring mental health disorders. You can learn more about Chelsea and her private practice at ThriveCounselingAustin.com.
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 a 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 October 11, 2019, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on October 11, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC