Eating disorders and athletes : Bulimia, body image & ballet
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Eating disorders and athletes

Most people have a prototypical image of a ballet dancer. Tall. Flat-chested. Thin.

For ballet dancers, being thin is not merely an act of vanity — it’s an essential career move. Often, the best roles go to the thinnest dancers. Young girls are discouraged from entering ballet if they’re “too curvy,” and ballet dancers are sometimes fired for gaining too much weight during the off season. As much as ballet dancers may try to keep a healthy attitude about food and weight, the nature of their career often forces them to develop unhealthy eating habits.

Bulimia: One of the risks of being a ballet dancer

Bulimia is just one of the eating disorders that frequently affects ballet dancers. Individuals with bulimia struggle with frequent episodes of binging and purging. Binging is defined as eating a larger than normal quantity of food in a short period of time. People with bulimia feel out of control during their binging episodes and try to “correct” their mistakes by performing purging activities. Purging can be accomplished by self-induced vomiting, laxatives or other means.

Some of the signs and symptoms of bulimia include:

  • Evidence of purging behaviors, e.g., frequent trips to the bathrooms, signs and/or smells of vomiting, packages of laxatives or diuretics
  • Maintaining a rigid exercise schedule despite illness or injury
  • Unusual swelling of the cheeks or jaw area
  • Calluses on the back of the hands or knuckles
  • Stained or discolored teeth

Bulimia — like all eating disorders — is particularly harsh on the body. Since individuals with bulimia do not receive proper amounts of nutrients, they’re more likely to develop overuse injuries, severe dehydration and heart palpitations. Since they’re frequently vomiting or using laxatives, people with bulimia also experience tooth decay, chronic irregular bowel movements and constipation. Heart failure and death are also risks.

The dangers of perfectionism

Not all ballet dancers are at risk for developing eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia.

According to a research study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, ballet dancers who are perfectionists are far more likely to develop an eating disorder than other dancers. This may be because perfectionists feel like they must conform to the image of a “perfect dancer.” Individuals who are not naturally thin might choose to heavily restrict calories or resort to purging behaviors, whereas individuals who are naturally thin might develop disordered eating because they fear “losing control.”Previous research has indicated that perfectionism is heavily linked to eating disorders in non-dancers as well, and so the higher incidence of disordered eating in perfectionist dancers is not surprising.

That same study also found that ballet dancers who are involved in a competitive dancing university are more likely to develop an eating disorder than ballet dancers in a university that focuses more on academics. This may be because competitive dancers want to get the best roles no matter what. Since the prototypical image of the ballet dancer (tall, flat-chested and thin) has yet to change, these dancers are choosing to sacrifice their health for their career.

Perhaps in the future, the ballet environment will change. Until then, ballerinas should remain ever vigilant about their eating habits and try not to value their career over their health.

Sovereign Health of California’s eating disorder program provides treatment for adult women suffering from eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. We recognize all of our patients as people— not disorders. Our individualized treatment program takes each patient’s unique history and personality into effect to best treat their conditions. For more information, contact our 24/7 helpline.

Written by Courtney Lopresti, M.S. neuroscience, Sovereign Health Group writer

To read the next blog in the series go here: Eating disorders and athletes: Purging to make weight in boxing, wrestling and other sports

To read the previous blog in the series go here: Eating disorders among athletes: Orthorexia, overtraining and bodybuilding

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