Dieting is a normalized behavior in our culture. Even medical professionals associate dieting with “health” since bodyweight is more often than not, unfortunately, used to objectively measure one’s risk for disease.
Young dancers are especially vulnerable to the messages surrounding weight-loss diets, especially given the environment in which they train (form-fitting uniforms and floor-to-ceiling mirrors are the norms). This emphasis on the body creates an environment susceptible to the development of eating disorders.
I often discuss the importance of building sustainable habits for ourselves. However, what happens when our concerns are about a friend? As an art, dance relies on the body to illustrate a story and like a sport, dance relies on the body’s fuel to execute that story. Peers can play a role in helping a friend, who might be struggling with disordered eating, find support. To learn more, I sat down with Melanie Kressel, a Mental Health Therapist to discuss 4 tips to consider if you’re concerned about a friend’s eating habits.
#1: Educate Yourself
Before addressing your concern, learn about the signs of disordered eating. Professional resources can help to increase awareness about the dangers of these restrictive behaviors. Assuming that a friend is just “not eating” is not a strong enough case and can lead to an unproductive conversation. Frequent cancellations, especially for events surrounding food, might be a sign of the isolation, which is commonly seen with Orthorexia. According to Kressel, “while Orthorexia is not considered an eating disorder in the medical literature, it is known to be an indicator that an individual is struggling with his or her relationship with food.”
#2: Express Your Concern
Be ready for a difficult conversation as someone struggling with disordered eating may not be ready or willing to talk about it. Share your experiences, as it can help to find relatable ground to “initiate the conversation in a gentle, supportive, and relatable manner.” Given our culture, we are all subject to the obsession with health. Kressel states, “normalizing these disordered thoughts in the conversation sends a message that your friend is not alone. The hope is that by starting the conversation, individuals will feel motivated to seek treatment to establish a healthier relationship with food and their bodies.”
#3: Tread Lightly
Be careful not to offer advice, especially related to food choices and body weight. Leave this up to a professional, like a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist or a mental health therapist. Kressel suggests using a “neutral, supportive, and simple language that is not accusive.”
#4: Tell Someone
“This can be tough and generally, there is no one right way to handle the situation,” says Kressel. Recommending that your dance company or studio host a group nutrition session is helpful. Kressel also suggests that “depending on the severity of the individuals’ eating issues, it might warrant a more direct approach… however, we do not want to corner the individual and make them feel attacked. At the same time, we want them to recognize their issues and seek proper help.” The bottom line? “If you are not sure, it is always best to bring your concerns to an adult.”
For dancers striving to enhance performance, harmless intentions can turn into restrictive eating habits. According to Kressel, “…make sure that your friend knows that you are coming from a place of care and concern rather than from a place of competition. A helpful tool in these circumstances is the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website, which offers useful resources in figuring out how best to speak with a friend who may be struggling with an eating disorder.”