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Food for Thought

By Helen Steggles

Why would it seem that dancers suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia more than any other group of people in any other form of training or profession? Do some people have problems with low self imagery which although may eventually develop and show whatever career they entered would be heightened greatly by being part of the dance environment? How as teachers, parents and friends can we support those who suffer from low self-esteem and self-worth and prevent them from developing further into eating disorders such as anorexia?

For many years women were seen as desirable when plump, it was fashionable to be fat. This portrayed the family as affluent and the man as a good provider. Nowadays the public perception is that a woman is attractive and successful when slim, but where did this idea originate? One possible culprit is the Media. It is hardly surprising that most women have a preoccupation with their body shape when the Media, be it magazines, cinema, newspapers or television surround us with images of slim, beautiful women portraying the idea that being slim equals happiness, popularity and success be it with their career or relationships. Models display designer clothes in sizes the majority of women can never achieve. Hollywood bombards us with films whose leading ladies are always incredibly beautiful and these same women are used by companies to advertise slimming products and new diets. The pressure on women to achieve the perfect body shape, which for most is unrealistic and unattainable is extremely high.

The diet industry is big business and an extremely profitable one and, although we cannot entirely lay the blame on the advertisers or the diet industry, it would seem however that they thrive on women's insecurities. So often a woman asks her partner "How do I look?" and when asked how they think they look answer with a sense of disapproval. If a woman feels badly about her body she is open to accept the ideas thrust upon her by the diet industry. Women's magazines constantly produce articles on new recipes and culinary delights while in the same publication pushing and encouraging them to lose weight and try the latest miracle diet. Even at school, having the right image is becoming more and more important and if not seen to be wearing the latest fashion or looking a certain way it can be very hard to fit in. Children can be very cruel and often being teased or bullied at school can cause deep emotional problems which may lead on to eating disorders in the future. Stress can be a major contributing factor, for example the pressure of exams.

With the new exam structure in schools pupils face continuous assessments and with unemployment high there is an intense pressure to do well. There are some anorexics whose illness seems to have been triggered by a single incident such as divorce, the death of a parent or sibling, or the end of a close relationship. However, with others it is a continuing situation such as sexual abuse, violence or general conflict within the family, that can trigger the onset of anorexia.

The term 'anorexia nervosa' was first used by English Physician Sir William Gull in 1873 to describe the condition of a woman he was treating. The term 'anorexic' is used to describe someone with an abnormal attitude towards food. They see food as the enemy and therefore have a fear of food. In a recent poll in America it was reported that one percent of the population are anorexic, mostly aged between fifteen and thirty. Of these six to ten percent will die as a result. Although difficult to define there is overwhelming evidence which would seem to prove the fact that anorexia is a psychiatric disorder for which the American psychiatric association has developed a diagnostic criteria. This includes a refusal to maintain their body weight over a minimal normal weight for both their age and height. This leads to weight loss and the body weighing approximately fifteen percent less than would normally be expected.

For those whose anorexia strikes during puberty their weight gain would be less than expected at this time. They have a distorted image of their body and an intense fear of gaining weight, although they are already underweight. There is an absence of at least three consecutive menstrual cycles leading to lower levels of oestrogen and without ovulation comes a possibility of infertility in later years. There will be poor circulation and lower body temperature as the levels of fat which help insulate the body will have been reduced. Often the skin will appear blue or even purple in colour and many anorexics complain of feeling cold. As a way of dealing with this problem the body grows Lanugo which is fine hair in order to help insulation. Other characteristics include dry skin, brittle nails and insomnia leading to a lack of energy and an inability to concentrate. There is also a higher risk of osteoporosis in later life caused by a disruption of the development of bone density.

In addition to the physical effects of anorexia it is the mental and emotional suffering that also needs to be considered. For some sufferers anorexia is a cry for help, they feel insecure and often suffer from a lack of confidence and low self-esteem. For some these feelings extend deeper and even develop into self-loathing and self-hatred. For many people it is just a symptom of a much deeper set of problems."My food problem is my somewhat unique reaction to a hoard of external and internal influences". (Eating Disorders The Facts, by Suzanne Abrahams and Derek Llewellyn-Jones). Many sufferers use their focus on food to avoid dealing with feelings and emotions they feel unable to face such as guilt, sadness or anger. Research has shown that many anorexics are from families where it is discouraged to express your feelings and therefore they have suppressed their emotions, often appearing to others as withdrawn and unattached emotionally. They become isolated and eventually lose the ability to feel anything except empty and alone.

So why would it seem dancers are at greater risk? As well as the difficulties already discussed the dancer faces further potential problems. Young dancers leave local dancing schools to begin their training at college with great excitement and anticipation of what lies ahead. For some the first day at college is the realisation of a dream. However with the excitement comes extreme pressure. For many they have been their school�s highest graded and usually most talented pupil, now they are surrounded by talent and this change from being a big fish in a little pond to a small fish in a big pond can be a crushing experience bringing feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. With the grant system unstable and unsure and scholarships scarce the financial pressures on families are great. This can often lead to students feeling guilty, aware that other family members may be going without in order for them to achieve their goal. There is pressure for them to do well and live up to peoples expectations or even their own and failure to do so may result in emotional turmoil. For some their arrival at college signals the end of their life living at home. This is a huge upheaval and living in digs away from the stability and support of family and friends can lead to loneliness and depression.

The training schedule is hard and very demanding both mentally and physically and often students are simply too tired to prepare a healthy and balanced meal. They slip into bad habits such as skipping an odd meal and then eventually miss them out entirely. Dancers whether in class, rehearsals or auditions require high levels of energy and for this carbohydrates are needed in the diet to provide the glucose sugars required to supply that energy. However if a dancer is not eating a healthy balanced diet the body will take the glucose sugars from its stores of glycogen in the muscles. A dancer is much more susceptible to injury when not eating healthily. Protein is needed to provide essential amino acids and when protein levels drop due to an unhealthy diet the body takes the protein needed from the muscular tissues, weakening the muscles and increasing the risk of injury. During class the student is surrounded by mirrors and wearing a minimal amount of clothing making it hard to ignore physical imperfections, real or imagined. The constant pressure to look good for both auditions and performances can sometimes lead to an unhealthy fixation with appearance and body shape.

Competition is high throughout both their training and career and constant criticism in class or rejection when auditioning can cause a crisis of confidence. Throughout their training the students are subjected to many pressures including, as discussed, financial, physical, mental and emotional. It is a very competitive profession both throughout training, constantly comparing and competing with fellow students and later when auditioning. It takes a strong student to deal with these difficulties faced on a daily basis. For those who may have already had insecurities and feelings of self-doubt before they began their training, it is easy to understand how these feelings could perhaps cause a student to develop an eating disorder such as anorexia. Although as teachers it is our job to give corrections we should be careful not to be overly critical especially to children at a sensitive stage of development. It is important to be aware of potential problems, perhaps in a student�s home life or at school, such as bullying. Our students should feel able to ask for advice or just a sympathetic ear. It is a fine line, I know, to offer help without interfering, however, I feel as teachers we have a responsibility to our students as what we say and do may greatly influence them. It is vital we consider our words and actions throughout our teaching with care and consideration.


'Eating Disorders The Facts':-
by Suzanne Abraham and Derek Llewellyn-Jones

'Anorexia and Bulimia - Your Questions Answered':- by Julia Buckroyd

'Eating disorders and the damaging effects they have on a dancer's body':- by Amy Kaupe (Dance. January 1999/March 1999)