According to the National Institutes of Health, dancers are three times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those in the general population. Being human, we’re also sometimes our own worst critics – and comments made in criticism of ourselves (outrightly or in more subtle projection) can come off as criticism of others.
Seemingly benign comments about weight, food, and body image – made in dressing rooms, backstage, and in the studio, and even if part of what are framed as “health talks” – can actually be harmful to our dancing peers. In the most serious cases, they can be eating disorder triggers, plain and simple.
With certain body image dynamics at play, what someone sees on the scale in the morning can impact their entire day, explains Melissa Lineburg of Empower Performance (MS, Certified Nutrition Specialist Candidate). Offhand comments about food, weight, or how bodies look in the studio mirror could deepen what they’re already experiencing. We never know what someone else may be going through.
Labeling foods or entire food groups as “good” or “bad” can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food, and even be a precursor to disordered eating. - Sarah Leaf
On the one hand, in certain dancer environments, talking about food and weight can actually be benign – if all dancers in that group have a secure relationship with these matters (like those Lineburg dances with, she says). On the other hand, Lineburg notes how in environments where dancers don't have that kind of security within themselves, these comments can be harmful; restrictive eating in dancers often starts in the studio, after all.
Comments from authority figures – teachers, coaches, choreographers – can also have more negative long-term impact than we may realize. “Comments from coaches and directors can trickle down to how dancers talk to each other in the studio,” Lineburg notes.
Sarah Leaf, MD, RD, LDN, isn't in favor of discouraging (or, even further, disallowing) discussion of food, weight and body image. "I think that open conversation is an important part of developing a healthy relationship with food in dancers. I've noticed the topic of eating disorders and related concerns is often discussed quietly behind closed doors," she says. She believes in "creating a trusting and open environment where dancers feel as though they can be forthcoming with their personal concerns as well as concerns about other dancers' health."
Leaf recommends an "open group discussion at the beginning of each season with dancers": positive and affirming health talks that explain protocol around nutrition concerns, demystify the topic, and demonstrate to dancers that "you take the topic seriously." It's important that these discussions center dancers’ overall well-being, Leaf adds. She underscores the importance of ensuring that “negative self-talk and talk about others is limited….as much as possible."
If that’s not the environment one is in, Lineburg believes that a studio change could be the best thing for one’s health and wellness – though, she acknowledges, the ability to do that certainly comes with a certain level of socioeconomic privilege.
Weight says nothing about your health, your dance ability, or who you are in the world. - Melissa Lineburg
Journaling can be an alternative for dancers looking to externalize their thoughts and feelings about food, weight, and body image. It's a "great tracking tool," says Lineburg, because dancers (or anyone) can look back through what they've written to see trends and changes over time. Leaf does caveat that journaling can "encourage secrecy", and shouldn't be the only arrow in a dancer's quiver when it comes to body image and their relationship with food. A trusted adult and/or clinician who understands dancers, however, can be essential.
Leaf also cautions against dance teachers – who are most often genuinely well-intentioned, devoted to their dancers' flourishing, and highly qualified at their craft – giving nutritional advice. Without sufficient knowledge and training, they can (of course unintentionally) "do more harm than good," she explains. "The dance teacher is an absolutely crucial component in the team of individuals who can assist a dancer with their nutrition. Yet I strongly recommend having at least some sort of consultation with a healthcare professional when there are any concerns regarding a dancer's weight." Talking about food should come with the expertise to back it up.
A bit of myth-busting: health talks to push back against harmful comments
A great way to reduce the potential harm of body, weight, and food comments is with the facts: the science and other involved realities at hand. Let’s do just that, with examples of such comments that one might hear in spaces dancers inhabit: from backstage to the studio and everywhere in between.
Additionally, a note from Lineburg: the compulsion to make the kinds of comments that follow could be a "yellow flag" that it could be useful to work with a nutrition professional. Say that one were to find such comments said by others upsetting, even triggering. In that case, it could also be beneficial to write down how that felt and any subsequent changes in behavior that might be correlated with the comment(s) in question. A phone notes app could even be a place for that. Just like with journaling, that can allow tracking – and a way to come back to it when one's "mind might be in a better place," Lineburg says.
"Oh, you're eating that? That's pretty fattening."
Lineburg is clear that there are no “good” or “bad” foods – only “good” or “bad” balance within one’s nutrition, in the sense of whether or not it supports a person towards their goals and in their overall well-being. How can one know if they’re close to an ideal balance? Lineburg suggests checking in with aspects of health such as quality of sleep, energy levels, bowel movements, reactions to stressors in one’s life, and how one’s body responds to cross-training.
Leaf goes even further: labeling foods or entire food groups as “good” or “bad” can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food, and even be a precursor to disordered eating. It can lead to guilt if one does eat a “bad” food, binging behavior, and distorted perception of internal hunger cues.
Leaf suggests instead focusing on the benefits of certain foods – for example, carbohydrates (especially the complex carbohydrates in fruits, veggies, and whole grains) are important fuel for long, physically rigorous dancing days. Unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats – found in nuts, fish, and avocados, for example – are important for “reducing inflammation and [muscle] recovery,” Leaf notes. “Promoting foods to consume, instead of telling dancers what foods to avoid…encourages the dancers to eat a wide variety of nutritious options” and reduces the chances “that they will restrict their intake.”
"I could leap like that too if I didn't weigh so much!"
Lineburg couldn’t be clearer: “weight has absolutely zero correlation with one’s dancing ability.” In fact, one could have a lower weight because of a relatively low muscle mass – and muscle is crucial for much of the athleticism that virtuosic dance calls for (not to mention helping to avoid injury and assisting with proper alignment).
“Muscle is more dense than fat, so a more muscular dancer is going to weigh more,” Lineburg explains. That’s something to keep in mind as the dance world more and more prioritizes an “athletic, fit” look over a “stick-thin” one, and promotes cross-training (including strength-training) to help dancers get there. If a dancer were to gain weight after starting a cross-training regimen, it’s most likely because they’ve gained muscle mass rather than fat.
All in all, “what is a healthy weight?” – there’s no simple answer there, because we are all different people and there are many, many factors at play.
"I ate too much over the holiday break…I really should have been more disciplined." ; "Ugh, I had a huge dinner last night…I feel so sluggish and huge!"
“Food is more than fuel…it’s family, it’s joy, it’s stress relief, it’s home,” and on and on, Lineburg says. Food can be a big part of how we enjoy our loved ones, celebrate momentous occasions, and even express our spirituality/faith. With those factors at play, it’s okay if one were to eat more than they usually might over a break from dance, or on a night out with friends!
A person also won’t balloon in weight because of a few days of enjoying rich foods over the holiday, and certainly not from one meal: “that’s just not how it works,” Lineburg says. One night’s food intake is also not going to set you back in your dancing. “Sometimes we think that one thing is going to offset us…but just like there’s no magic pill to get us where we want to be, no one thing is going to get us off-track.” She suggests hydrating well, to help the body digest more food than it might be used to digesting – but other than that, it’s all good!
"Hmm, you weigh that much? I weigh [x]." ; "I gained a couple of pounds this week and I'm freaking out."
Again, “what is a healthy weight?”: there’s no easy answer there. It’s complex and highly individual to each of us. Moreover, Lineburg says, weight is a number that can assist with things like medication dosage – but other than that, it’s a pretty neutral number. Height has a big impact on it. For example, Lineburg is 5’11, and one “can’t expect me to weigh the same as a 5’2 dancer,” she says. There are numerous other factors at play, those that are completely beyond our control: from one’s menstrual cycle to how well one is hydrating to even the gravitational pull of the moon (yes, dear readers, you read that right).
“Just like how some dancers are really great at adagio or are excellent turners or jumpers, we’re all going to weigh something different,” Lineburg says. She is again crystal-clear: “weight says nothing about your health, your dance ability, or who you are in the world.”
Panicking about the number on the scale can be understandable, but not necessarily constructive. Lineburg suggests first taking a deep breath and a step back to remember that.
"I feel like I've gained weight…I don't even know if my partner can lift me!"
In addition to the above, when it comes to concerns about one’s weight and partnering, let’s remember what many male dancers who lift female partners often say: lighter dancers can actually be a bit harder to lift. Why? Dancers who weigh somewhat more are often more muscular than lighter dancers – so they’re more able to help their partners support and guide their own weight through space.
Plus, Lineburg notes, companies can often pair dancers together who partner well. For instance, as a taller dancer she often works with taller male partners. Together, they make the physics and movement pathways of the choreography work, with their bodies just as they are.
"Her stomach looks so flat and nice in that leotard. Mine would be bulging out if I wore that!"
Appearance comparisons: again, perhaps understandable yet ultimately not constructive. We all have different genetics, Lineburg emphasizes. Thus, “what you might be seeing on social media or what your best friend might be telling you they’re eating: you could do the exact same thing and never look the same.”
Logically, then, we can call appearance comparisons a dead end. The source of our comparisons can even be subconscious, Lineburg adds – so it’s helpful for one to take stock of the messages they’re absorbing from social media and from people in their life.
All in all, Lineburg leaves us with an affirming message for times when we might hear things that shake our security in our bodies, how we fuel ourselves, and how we look: "step into your power…be confident." She reminds us that we are so much more – as artists and as people – than a number on a scale. No off-hand comment changes that.