If you follow me on Instagram, then you’re likely toying with the idea of demolishing your food restrictions. You’re sick of that cycle: the restrictive mindset that leads you out-of-control around food. But despite this, there’s one major thing holding you back from taking the plunge into intuitive eating: you’re really, really, REALLY scared that you’ll gain weight.
And with auditions and placement exams lurking, the idea of weight gain is not something you’re interested in. Am I right?
I was there once: convinced that gaining pounds on the scale would never allow me to be a professional dancer. What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that letting go of this fear was my ticket to a fulfilling dance career. Trying to maintain a lifestyle with food rules meant I was distracted mentally and tired physically. My worries over my weight did not enable me to dance to my fullest potential.
Dancers: You Need To Stop Fearing Weight Gain
Here’s the thing: an artistic director with a weight chart cannot dictate your ideal body weight. And though many dancers try to fight it, genetics definitely play a role. It’s called our set-point weight. A set-point weight is where our body wants to be in order to function optimally. Many factors impact our body’s set-point, including our genetics, our metabolism, our daily energy balance (intake/expenditure), and even our history of dieting.
Yup- you read that right. Dieting can cause your set point weight to change over time, but this change is often seen as an increase in weight. When we diet, our body fights to maintain homeostasis by lowering our metabolism. As the body enters “starvation mode,” it attempts to “hold on” to as much energy as possible since it doesn’t necessarily know when you’ll have access to food in the future. This is why dancers need to stop dieting ASAP and instead, build a nourishing lifestyle without food rules.
If you’re still growing (and younger than 20 years) it’s likely that you haven’t yet reached your set point weight. And while there is some research showing how we can lower our set-point weight, realize this is likely not possible for dancers striving for unrealistic weight goals. If you’re confused about whether or not you’re at your set-point weight, then ask yourself: can I maintain my current weight without obsessively counting calories and limiting my food intake? Dancers can read more about defining a healthy body weight here.
Now, despite these facts, many dancers still feel limited in their ability to live without food restrictions. This is because many dancers fear that a non-diet approach could say, result in a body type that is seen as “unacceptable” for a dancer. But before you say “no way” to a non-restrictive lifestyle, I encourage you to hear me out: for reasons that I explained earlier, diets don’t work for dancers. As performing athletes, you need full mental- and physical- freedom to perform at your best. Obsessing over your body and limiting your diet will not allow for that freedom. So to start building a sustainable lifestyle, let’s demolish your fear of weight gain using the same steps I use with clients.
Step 1: Understand Your Fear
Before we can unravel a fear, we need to identify the source. When it comes to weight gain, we often fear how it will impact our dancing:
- Will we look out-of-shape?
- Will we be difficult to partner?
- Will we fit into our costumes?
And on a large-scale perspective, our fear of gaining weight often stems from cultural weight stigma and social assumptions that higher weights mean we’re:
- Following unhealthy eating habits
- Less attractive/less beautiful
- Less successful
- Unworthy of the social standard
Given the weight (pun intended) of body ideals in both the dance industry and regular society, it is completely valid to have a fear of gaining weight. This double-whammy makes it nearly impossible for a dancer to NOT fear weight gain. BUT- I need you to know that this fear is holding you back. Remember: scale weights do not account for true body composition. From strong bones to lean muscles, scale weights are highly inaccurate for dancers and athletes. Additionally, scale weights have zero bearings on your artistry.
Step 2: Reassess Your Values
Now that you’ve identified WHY you’re scared, it’s time to build new connections with your thought processes. Your brain is currently running with one thought: if I gain weight, I will be less successful because I will not have the “ballet body.”
First, let’s assess what NOT gaining weight, and subsequently attempting to control your weight, will likely endure: being obsessed with numbers, calorie-counting, tracking body weights, and so forth. These behaviors can consume our mental and emotional well-being. Instead, can you envision a life free from food and body obsession? What would happen to your mental space? Would it feel freer? Might you have more energy to devote to additional hobbies or say your artistry? Here are some additional questions to consider that I’ve adapted from fellow anti-dietitian Christy Harrison:
- What are your greatest values in life?
- What do you lose when you’re obsessing over calories and weight?
- What do you gain from that obsession—in other words, what needs does it meet?
- How might you get those needs met in other, more positive ways?
- How do you really want to spend your limited time on this planet?
Step 3: Rewire Your Thoughts
Utilizing positive affirmations is your first step to building new thoughts. My favorites are:
- My body deserves to be taken care of with nourishing meals.
- I am a good example to other dancers about how to love their bodies.
- I am learning how to love my body.
- I love delicious food and there is no shame in that.
- I want to treat my body with love and respect.
Once you’ve accumulated your favorite mantras, it’s time to proactively set reminders. Similar to dancing, repetition is how your brain will re-learn and streamline a more helpful thought process. Forcing yourself to see these reminders (like putting them as alerts on your phone) daily is a great exercise.
Step 4: Shift Your Behaviors
Now let’s translate your new thoughts into new behaviors. Shift your goals away from body weight and on to your daily meal plan. Make choices rather than rules and utilize the principles of gentle nutrition to build a nourishing menu. Here is a list of articles to start with:
- First, make sure your metabolism is functioning optimally (read more here).
- Next, differentiate between food preferences and food rules.
- Last, apply nutrition information in a non-obsessive way.
If you are scared of gaining weight, then you’re inhibiting yourself from diving into these sustainable habits. I’m really excited for you to begin this journey. I know how tough it is to drop a fear that our society and industry obsess over. But at the end of the day, your fear is more likely to lead you to burnout, not to a successful career.