What is The Orthorexic Identity?
Dancers who experience a history of disordered eating, including orthorexia, commonly face the struggle of overcoming the orthorexic identity. Perhaps family members have labeled you as “the healthy one”. Or friends consider you the “good dancer” for eating “right” and keeping up with your demanding cross-training schedule. For dancers who are in the early stages of healing their relationships with food and body, it’s common to feel most relatable to an identity that has been built upon the regimented (and culturally glorified) behaviors of disordered eating.
Food is a necessity for survival. Since we eat every day, multiple times a day, disordered eating (and over-exercising) can easily become consuming. When not intervened upon, those beliefs and behaviors can play largely into how one is navigating the complexities of life.
Does my disordered eating define me?
The short answer is no, but your feelings are valid. Disordered eating and obsessive exercise patterns can strongly influence your day-to-day routines, whether it be dance, school, or work. These behaviors can also impact your relationships with family and friends. Your disordered eating (or diagnosed eating disorder) can very much drive decisions like whether or not you go out to lunch and challenge your fear of a specific food or stay home to stick with a “safe” option.
But here’s an incredibly important fact: neither your relationship with food nor your struggle to find balance in your exercise patterns reflects who you are as a person. No matter how long you’ve been struggling to heal your relationships with food and body, neither defines the values you bring to this world. And while your past of disordered eating will always be part of your story, it will never be your whole story. It is possible to rebuild your identity, reshape your thoughts, and shift your behaviors in a way that supports your healing and recovery.
While your past of disordered eating will always be part of your story, it will never be your whole story.
Strategies to Dismantle The Orthorexic Identity
Separate yourself from the symptoms
For some, it may help to initially brainstorm the supposed “benefits” of disordered eating. A few examples include:
- The feeling of control (and the comfort that goes alongside that control).
- The (largely falsified) promises set forth by diet and wellness culture, specifically the supposed “success” achieved when one complies with disordered eating and over-exercising
- The hope of finally achieving a body size deemed to be more “acceptable” by harmful industry standards.
- The potential to fit into a costume or type-casted role.
Once you’ve identified these, identify how those behaviors are NOT serving you. A few examples:
Now, dismantle them. We know that the comfort resulting from control around food and body size is fleeting. We also know that striving for unrealistic body ideals increases our risk of injury and burnout. This will ultimately derail your performance efforts. Last, begin to separate your worth and values from those unsupportive coping tools that you’ve developed in an attempt to achieve the “benefits” you listed above. But have compassion- it’s completely human to strive for comfort within the discomfort. It is not your fault for developing these disordered habits. Explore additional interests and hobbies, even those that involve joyful movement outside the studio. Once you do this, you can work on unraveling those disordered and orthorexic tendencies without feeling consumed by them. Increasing caloric intake (read this) and challenging fear foods (read this) are two examples and a great starting point. Working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who is trained in disordered eating and eating disorders is especially helpful.
Reflect upon your life before disordered eating
Can you remember a time before disordered eating? This is an opportunity to journal. The difficulty level of this question will depend upon how long you’ve been struggling with disordered eating like orthorexia. If diet culture infiltrated into your life at a young age, which is common for dancers, then it might be harder to remember life without restrictive eating. The same holds for those who experience(d) food insecurity.
The longer it’s been, the more comfortable and secure you feel when using food restrictions (and/or over-exercising) as a tool to cope with the undeniable pressures in the dance world. Again, be compassionate and not judgemental. Reflect upon any memories you might have before this time and if those are limited, craft a few mental images of what life can look like without restrictive eating habits. Perhaps it’s going out for a meal without doubting your choices. It could be an injury-free season. Or, perhaps it’s dating without the added mealtime stress.
Build constructive responses
If you’re working towards healing your relationship with food, it can be challenging to overcome such an identity when others constantly remind you of it— even when their intent is not meant to be hurtful. It is possible to let close friends and family know that you’re navigating a challenging relationship with food even without getting into too much detail but remember, you’re not required to engage in conversations that make you feel uncomfortable.
Building a toolbox of responses can help to prepare you for situations when commentary feels inevitable. Ultimately, if others seem surprised by your shift in eating habits, then they’ll have to figure out a way to get over it. Regardless, preparing a few responses will help you while you’re working to move past the orthorexic identity.
- Scenario 1: you’re eating with friends who presume you might not want to try a specific food because it’s not “clean” or “healthy” enough, consider a simple statement like “I’d love to try that, too!” If you’re probed further, you can explain that you’re “working to lessen up on the food rules and experimenting with new foods these days.”
- Scenario 2: sandwich your response with a compliment and a (somewhat forceful) change of topic: “I appreciate you wondering about my choices! I’m working to create a healthier relationship with food. By the way, did you watch that new series everyone’s talking about?”
- Scenario 3: reframe crticism. Rather than arguing over one’s commentary, simply ask them to support the changes you’re making and ultimately, evolve to build a lifestyle with fewer food restrictions.
There may come a time when you feel very ready to hold larger and more impactful conversations about healing from disordered eating and diet culture, along with your work in overcoming the orthorexic identity. I’ve previously discussed how to handle diet talk if and when you’re up for the conversation. Here are a few helpful resources to consider for both yourself and those you feel can benefit from the learning opportunity:
- How to create a healthy relationship with food.
- Get started with intuitive eating.
- Permission to eat.