Eating disorders are still a taboo topic in the dance world, despite their prevalence. But one person who is openly discussing (and trying to change) dancers' eating behaviour is consultant psychiatrist Jon Arcelus. His research focuses primarily on the ways in which teachers and coaches can have a positive impact, but also attempts to explain how and why dancers develop eating disorders (ED).
Eating problems are more common in elite athletes and dancers than the general population, but Arcelus points out that neither dance nor sport causes such problems. Eating disorders are the result of a number of factors – genetics provide the metaphorical gun, the environment loads it, and a stress factor pulls the trigger.
|A dancer's pie of life|
Arcelus describes a ‘pie of life’ composed of the components of life that are important. For a non-dancer, the pie typically includes fairly evenly distributed segments including friends, family, work etc. For a dancer, however, a large proportion of time and energy has to be invested in dance in order to succeed. A dancer’s pie of life is therefore likely to be largely devoted to dance.
When something goes wrong, and dance can no longer fill this large proportion of a dancer’s self-worth and identity, it is easy for an eating disorder to take over. There are various stress factors that may pull the metaphorical ED trigger – typically they are characterised by a loss of control, such as if a dancer is injured or gives a poor performance. Just as dance is able to give a sense of achievement, belonging and structure to a dancer’s life, so too is an eating disorder. This makes it both easier for an ED to take hold, and potentially harder to recover.
Teachers and coaches can help prevent eating disorders by encouraging dancers to have interests outside of dance, and by offering support during periods of change and injury. They also have an important role in detecting the early signs of EDs and directing dancers to professional help.
Whilst Arcelus’s research may seem disheartening, understanding eating disorders and how they take hold can only be a positive thing. With understanding, teachers and others working in dance will be better able to tackle EDs head on and to help dancers have the healthiest and most fulfilling careers possible.