If you’re a dancer who follows 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 to feel 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 was that letting go of this fear was my ticket to a fulfilling dance career. Trying to maintain a lifestyle with food rules, all for the purpose of NOT gaining weight, meant I was distracted mentally and tired physically. My worries over my weight did not enable me to dance to my fullest potential.
Dancers 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 not widely accepted by the mainstream, when compared to your day-to-day choices, genetics play a much larger role in your body shape— your set-point weight is where your body wants to be in order to function optimally. Many factors impact your body’s set point, including genetics, metabolism, daily energy balance (intake/expenditure), and even a history of dieting.
In fact, 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 its metabolism. As the body enters a self-imposed starvation mode, it attempts to “hold on” to as much energy as possible since it doesn’t necessarily know when it’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.
But what’s my set point weight?
If you’re still growing (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.
Fear of weight gain is often the most common barrier to a dancer’s ability to eat more food throughout the day. And despite the facts presented above, 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. (FYI- I understand that it’s easier for me to write about this topic as a dancer and dietitian with thin privilege.)
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, dancers need mental- and physical- freedom to perform at their best. Obsessing about their bodies and limiting their diets will not allow for that freedom.
To start building a supportive relationship with food, dancers must address any lurking fear of weight gain. This involves lots of unlearning— anti-fat messaging set forth by a fat-phobic culture. It also involves an active approach to anxiety management (especially over the unknown of how bodies might change) along with navigating body image distress and increasing levels of body dysmorphia (this might involve physical discomfort resulting from body changes).
10+ truths about dancer weight gain
If you’re coming from a place of extreme food restriction, it’s likely that you’ll experience weight gain upon healing your relationship with food. Coming to terms with a few truths is often part of the puzzle:
- Despite what BMI ranges suggest, a weight that is only maintained through the use of restrictive dieting is not a healthy weight.
- Even if you don’t technically feel (or are considered to be) “underweight,” a weight that is maintained only through restrictive eating behaviors is not your ideal weight.
- It is nearly impossible to achieve your fullest dancing potential if you’re ruminating about weight and food.
- Fears of weight gain magnify unsupportive thoughts like “One “bad” meal or snack will ruin me!”
- If you gain weight, you might experience discomfort. These feelings are often temporary and can be navigated alongside the support of a licensed clinician such as a mental health therapist.
- It is possible that peers will comment on your weight, especially if weight changes happen. This can be painful— support is helpful.
- It is very likely that other peers will not care whether or not your body changes… these are the relationships to focus on.
- It’s possible that dance schools and companies reprimand weight gain. These environments are not supporting you.
- It’s also possible that dance schools and companies will celebrate your body’s capabilities over weight gain— these environments are supporting you.
- Even if you gain weight, consider what else you’re gaining— relationships, experiences, opportunities.
How To Stop Fearing Weight Gain- Tips for Dancers
Step 1: Validate Your Fear
Before we can unravel a fear, we need to both validate its presence and identify its roots. Given the intensity of body ideals in both the dance industry and culture at large, 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.
When it comes to weight gain, we often fear how it will impact our dancing:
- Will we look “out-of-shape?”
- Will it be difficult to partner?
- Will we fit into our costumes?
From a large-scale perspective, fears of gaining weight often stem 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
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 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 validated and 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 would happen if you attempted to “control” your weight (using tactics like dieting and exhaustive exercise routines):
- You’re likely to feel obsessed with numbers.
- You’ll probably start calorie counting
- …and track your weights…obsessively.
- You’ll likely begin measuring your daily mood off that number.
These experiences can consume your 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 in class? Here are some additional questions to consider (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 practical 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 favorites, 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 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 onto your daily fueling strategies. Practice food flexibility, honor choices when accessible, and challenge restrictive rules. Once you’ve developed a solid relationship with food, you can 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 supportive habits. I’m really excited for you to begin this journey. I know how tough it is to drop a fear that our culture obsessed over. But at the end of the day, your fear is more likely to lead you to burnout, not to a successful career.