"Warning: this post discusses eating disorders and substance abuse. If those are challenging topics for you, please consider skipping to another post.”
Note - this submission has been edited in collaboration with our Clinical Advisory Board.
I started taking dance classes at the age of three and I remember in one of my early ballet classes, maybe around 5 years old, my teacher laughingly poked my stomach and said “suck in your belly”. This moment was one of many in my youth that made me think that my body wasn’t “right” for dancing.
This moment was so brief, but looking back I am convinced it was formative. There were phases throughout my life where I experienced pure ecstasy and joy from dancing. This love of moving kept me in the studio, but so much of this happiness was sandwiched with pain.
Around the time of puberty, 13 years old, my obsession with molding myself into a “dancer body” started to develop by what I ate. In middle school, I would buy school lunch everyday but wouldn’t eat anything fried, with carbs, or anything with butter on it. Sometimes I would only eat the fruit cup on the plate. I would be starving by the time I went to dance class but was fueled by the compliments I received from my dance teachers about my body. Often at the end of the day, because of restricting myself, I would binge on bowls of sugary cereal or ice cream. I remember feeling so much shame and guilt after binging. As I went into high school, my habits transformed mainly into cycles of binging then extreme limiting of food intake.
All of the social events that were supposed to be fun became torture for me. At birthday parties I would feel so guilty about eating pizza, mac & cheese, and cake. Sometimes I would be so overwhelmed by being around these “unhealthy” foods that I would completely lose control and overeat. My whole life centered on food rather than enjoying time with friends. I felt jealous of the other kids who would enjoy the moment and weren’t constantly thinking about food.
By the middle of my senior year I was auditioning for colleges, and this intensified my eating disorder to the extreme. I had been told by other dancers who went on to college, that being at your thinnest when you audition helps your acceptance into a program. I was determined to be at my thinnest. Again, during this time I was praised by my dance teachers at how my body looked, and any time I slipped up I thought it reflected on how serious I was or wasn’t about being a professional dancer. I sincerely thought that a big indicator for being a successful professional dancer was to be extremely disciplined with what you eat. I was on a diet regime of no carbs, no fried food, no oil or butter, and little salt.
After all my auditions were over I went on a spring break cruise with some friends from high school. There was unlimited food on the boat, including ice cream cones. Each night we would sit down for a three course meal and I couldn’t control myself. In some ways I felt relieved to be away from the world that caused me so much torment, that I was constantly trying to fit into, yet also felt shame and guilt at letting go. I was planning my “getting back into shape” regimen at every waking moment. At the end of this trip I received the acceptance letter from my dream school.
The latter part of my senior year, I religiously used laxatives. Previously, I would only use them when I felt really awful about how much I ate. By senior year they were a part of my daily routine. I started experiencing hair loss and became anemic, often sleeping through many classes. I hid everything from my family. My sister suspected something was wrong and often tried to discuss it with me, I responded with anger and denial. My mom thought I became anemic because I had become a vegetarian.
The summer before college, I started to drink with a boyfriend and his friends. I started to develop a habit of binge drinking, often blacking out or throwing up. I carried this habit into my freshman year at college, along with my binge eating, purging, diet restrictions, and limiting of food intake. Everything for me was an extreme; I didn’t know how to take care of myself and didn’t feel I deserved to be taken care of. Continuing a pattern of extreme lifestyle choices, I started to experiment with drugs like Adderall, which was sadly somewhat popular among dancers in my conservatory to suppress their eating habits. I bought the pills from a dancer who had a prescription for ADHD. The Adderall not only suppressed my appetite, but would make it so that I only needed 1-2 drinks to feel “messed up” and didn’t get that sleepy feeling that alcohol gave me. After using it every weekend for a couple months, I started to feel withdrawn and cranky. I felt I couldn’t be emotionally present in my dance work and that terrified me. I stopped taking it.
What ultimately saved me was my love for my craft. I started to see a therapist my sophomore year on campus and she helped me understand my relationship to food. There was a sobering statement she made about the longevity of my dance career. The thought of not being able to dance because I am too sick or weak frightened me. I credit her words as the beginning of my recovery.
The recovery was slow, mostly it just started as a thought in my brain that previously was unimaginable. I started to become worried about the fragility of my body and wanted to see myself as strong and whole rather than weak. Simultaneously my sickness saw a desire to have a normal relationship to food as a weakness. The mental defenses I had built up to preserve my disorder were the hardest to overcome. It almost became something I was proud of. Proud that I was strong enough to limit what I ate, take laxatives and be dehydrated, have my hair fall out, etc.
It’s been almost 5 years since I spoke to that therapist and my thinking began to shift. I really wasn’t able to fully have space to heal until I left the dance institution I was in. I was surrounded by people struggling with similar issues, and the institution didn’t speak up, in fact in some ways they encouraged it. I’m sure many of my teachers had similar experiences and see having eating issues as a normal part of a dancer’s life.
Now I have, what seems to me, a really amazing relationship to food. I don’t limit anything from my diet. I still weigh myself daily, but don’t feel like the world is ending if the number is not to my liking. Occasionally I binge eat, especially at family gatherings. I do feel some guilt or sadness but it doesn’t consume me and I never feel the urge to take a laxative. Usually I forget that I overate by the next morning. I don’t limit my diet. I treat myself often to delicious foods that are fried, cooked in butter, and have carbs. Sometimes I feel insecure about my body in dance settings, but the insecurity usually gets pushed aside by a confidence and appreciation for my body that supports me everyday.
I truly think I would’ve been able to reach this point at a much younger age if the community I was a part of was sensitive to these issues that so many dancers face. If they had resources available to me that were clearly advertised at the studios, at shows, etc. If we had on call counseling like we had an on call physical therapist. I look back at this time in my life with deep sadness for that girl who spent so many years in pain for no reason.