Dance, Sports and Eating Disorders

The relationship between body image pressure and eating disorders is complex. As a former competitive dancer, I experienced the most harmful and impactful messages through subtle means, rather than overt statements regarding my body and weight. When I was 10 and getting measured for my dance costumes, I had to wear a body suit with a giant number on the front indicating what size I was. That year, I needed one of the largest sizes in my class. Although my dance teacher didn’t comment on the number that I felt was blazing across my body, it was enough for me, just wearing that bodysuit, to feel insecure. I was also quick to criticize my body when I was in the dance studio, as I had constant access to mirrors. As someone who was a perfectionist and overly critical of themselves to begin with, this consistent exposure to mirrors only fuelled the negative dialogue inside my head.

Despite situations such as these, dance was an extremely positive force in my life, and influential in my recovery from anorexia nervosa. Dancing enabled me to focus on the incredible things my body could do, and helped me see food as the fuel I needed to continue doing what I loved. I was also fortunate to have had a supportive dance teacher who made a conscious effort to promote a body-positive environment within our dance studio when she learned about my eating disorder. Sadly, this is not the case everywhere. “The reality is a lot of athletes live within a culture that promotes and encourages disordered eating,” says Sarah Gairdner, Exercise Science PhD candidate at the University of Toronto and former Canadian National Olympic Trampoline Team member. “Rigid eating is not out of the norm.”

Body image pressures are not unique to the sport of dance. Gairdner points out athletes across the board are encouraged to be as fit and lean as possible. “Figure skating, gymnastics, and dance get a lot of attention for promoting weight preoccupation but the reality is most athletes competing in higher level sports feel pressure to conform to a particular body shape and size.” Jay Walker, Certified Personal Trainer and Counseling Psychology graduate student, lists marathon runners, boxers, cyclists and wrestlers as some of the other athletes who may be encouraged to maintain lower body weights.

Each individual has an optimal set-point for their body, where they can function at their best. It’s therefore unrealistic to expect athletes to conform to a certain weight or shape. Although athletes’ bodies can become toned in characteristic ways with vigorous training regimes, you can have a larger body type and be successful in sports. Dancers are strong, flexible, and able to share their thoughts and feelings through movement; these abilities are not dictated by size. Unfortunately, there is often a desire for uniformity within dance environments, and this can lead individuals falling outside “the norm” to feel ashamed and insecure.

When enrolling children in sports, it is crucial for caregivers to explore the culture of the training environment, as this can have a significant impact on a child’s well-being and experiences of success in sports. Meet the instructors. Watch a class. Do you hear laughter? Are there children of a variety of shapes and sizes in the class? If not, explore other options. For young people, Walker stresses, “Listen to your body; do not ignore its signals. Take time to consider why you want to compete. And above all, make sure that the sport brings you enjoyment – not stress.”

Sera Rossi began dancing at the age of six and has been in love with the art and sport of dance ever since. She is a former volunteer of NEDIC, and holds a Master’s degree in School and Clinical Child Psychology from OISE/University of Toronto. She currently works in the Psychology Department for the York Catholic District School Board.

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