Eating disorders affect millions of women nationwide. Among ballet dancers, this statistic is even higher. In today’s society, the pressure for young girls to look a certain way in order to be considered attractive is crushing. In ballet, the pressure to be very thin is not only limited to improving their appearance, but also their performance. Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder and EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) are all classified forms of eating disorders that can result in life threatening consequences. Eating disorders are highest among white middle and upper class females under the age of 25. On average, the incidence of eating disorders in the white middle-class population is one in a hundred. In ballet, this number is one in five. Understanding why ballet dancers are much more susceptible to eating disorders and educating parents and young female dancers are important to prevent these numbers from rising.
The ballerina physique
Ballerinas are expected to be very thin. Young ballet dancers look up to the older thin dancers and believe that in order to get a job in a company they too must have this physique. Unlike with other sports or professions, ballet places a large emphasis on physical appearance. Ballet dancers are required to wear skin-tight clothes and dance in front of large mirrors for hours at a time. This atmosphere causes a dancer to be acutely aware of what her body looks like. The dancers are constantly looking at themselves and their bodies and comparing themselves to the other girls. The desire to be not only a better dancer than the other girls but also to be thinner is extremely apparent in competitive ballet.
Many ballet dancers believe that achieving a lower weight will improve their dancing as well. Female ballet dancers must be held in the air by their male counterparts in a series of long and strenuous lifts. Being lighter and easier to hold is desirable. Because extra weight changes the balance of the body, ballet dancers are careful to maintain a lower weight, thus allowing them to move easier and land softer.
Many girls who suffer from eating disorders feel that the disorder gives them a sense of control. This act of self-discipline and structure is inherent in the nature of ballet as well. Mastering a skill or achieving a low weight is a tangible goal for ballerinas. Some ballet dancers have reported that being thinner than the other girls can give them an edge when it comes to getting a role in a dance. Having a sense of control over your body and your competition is powerful for ballerinas.
These pressures are extremely relevant in the world of classical ballet, but that is not to say that developing an eating disorder is the right way to find success as a ballerina. In fact, it is just the opposite. Eating disorders destroy your body, leaving you malnourished and lacking in muscle tone and bone strength. Ballet is a rigorous sport that requires an enormous amount of strength. A body plagued by a serious eating disorder is weak and not able to execute difficult leaps and skillful maneuvers. Ballet is also a cardio exercise and requires the same type of nutritious diet that other athletes need.
Studies have shown that girls begin to express concerns about their own weight or about becoming too fat as early as the age of six. Most ballet dancers being their high level training around age seven. These girls are dreaming of becoming professional ballerinas, and are doing so at an impressionable age. Feeling the need to be lean like their idols can significantly damage them both mentally and physically. Educating young ballerinas on the importance of proper nutrition is key. Most ballet companies around the world now take eating disorders very seriously and are implementing programs to make sure their dancers stay healthy. It is important to teach young ballet dancers that the way to achieve her goals is by focusing on perfecting her dancing, not her weight.
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