Diet Culture in Dance
Think about it: how often do you feel “bad” for eating foods deemed “unhealthy” and “good” for eating foods deemed “clean?” Are the “shoulds” and “should nots” around food overwhelming to you? Do you feel stuck with a list of safe foods and trigger foods? Can you no longer trust yourself around the very medium that is meant to keep you alive?
Food guilt is a very valid feeling that most people experience throughout their lives (learn more about what food guilt is here). But how exactly did it get to this point? This article will break down the destructive pursuit of diet culture. We’ll also dive into how diet culture infiltrates the dance world and why the first core value of The Healthy Dancer® framework involves ditching dancer diet culture.
What Is Diet Culture?
Diet culture is a system of beliefs that idolizes weight loss. In diet culture, it’s believed that thinness equates to health, and in this pursuit of thinness (or “health,”) certain foods are either demonized or glorified. Diet culture also imposes moral value upon our food choices and as a result, we’re “good” for eating “healthy” and we’re “bad” for eating “unhealthy.”
Why Is Diet Culture Harmful?
In pursuit of the “thin ideal,” or for dancers, the “ideal ballet body,” we’re made to believe that in order to excel, we must aim for a body standard that is unfortunately rooted in elitism and privilege. Point blank: diet culture privileges those with smaller bodies and oppresses those with larger bodies.
The oppression of larger bodies is experienced on a variety of levels, from the personal level (experiencing body-shaming as a form of bullying in school) to the systemic level (not being able to fit comfortably into public spaces like airplane seats). And while anyone can experience body-shaming and body dissatisfaction, those in smaller bodies (like myself) do not experience the same level of systemic oppression as those in larger bodies. I talk more about thin privilege here.
A few other ways in which weight bias shows up in our world:
- Those with larger bodies have less access to adequate medical care.
- Larger clothing sizes are less likely to be stocked in mainstream stores.
- Independent of body weight, individuals who experience weight stigma are less likely to be physically active.
- Those in larger bodies are less likely to be hired in the workforce.
The Truth About Diet, Weight, and Health
While it’s not widely accepted by the mainstream, evidence supports that “diet and lifestyle” influence only a fraction of one’s body weight and size. In comparison, we know that both genetics and environmental factors, such as the five social determinants of health (this includes the lack of access to affordable and nutrient-dense foods), have WAY more of an influence on body weight and size. Per the WHO, the social determinants of health are circumstances in which people are born, grow up, live, and work. These circumstances are shaped by systemic forces, including economics, social policies, and politics.
In regard to health, a growing body of evidence supports that regardless of body weight, weight stigma is an independent risk factor for negative health outcomes and a contributor to chronic stress. We also know that weight loss efforts (like dieting) fail 98% of the time and for those “successful weight-loss maintainers,” eating behaviors parallel disordered eating.
What about body weight and disease risk?
Christy Harrison is an incredible resource who dives into this both on her Podcast (Food Psych) and in her book (Anti-Diet). When we’re discussing “metabolic risk factors” of larger bodies we’re commonly referring to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. According to research, however, weight cycling (a product of yo-yo dieting) is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease (BTW, dancers: yo-yo dieting even lessens bone density). Also, the authors of a 2020 study explain that there doesn’t seem to be published evidence demonstrating an association between diabetes and the intake of total sugar, added sugar, or table sugar. Fun fact, research shows that intuitive eating is associated with better management of diabetes.
The Pursuit of Wellness
Diet culture is super sneaky. In fact, you do not have to be classically dieting to be impacted by diet culture. Ideas of “wellness” and “clean eating” are just two examples of how diet culture causes us to second guess our choices. Instead of making decisions based on positive emotional experiences & personal preferences, we make choices because we *think* we are “being good” or “staying on track.”
Christy Harrison talks about the shift in diet culture’s message with “diet talk” and “lite” foods” becoming obsolete. According to Harrison, “The Wellness Diet is my [Harrison’s] term for the sneaky, modern guise of diet culture.” Instead of being focused on counting points, dieters are now focused on making the “right” lifestyle choices (which are oftentimes described as “clean,” “pure,” and “detoxing.”)
Why Dancers Need To Face-Up to Diet Culture
For dancers, weight bias is experienced in class and in casting, with roles being saved for dancers in smaller bodies. As a result, dancers turn to exhaustive efforts, spending time, energy, and money on changing their bodies. Fear of weight gain and fatphobia also present challenges for dancers striving to heal their relationships with food.
How Can Dancers Ditch Diet Culture?
The diet industry is a 72 billion dollar industry that unfortunately, isn’t going away anytime soon. So, how can we ditch it? Techniques like intuitive eating can help but might be difficult to sustain while immersed in an environment overcome with messages about food and body (hello dance studios!). Here are 5 tips to consider:
- Cultivate a supportive inter-personal community. The Healthy Dancer® Winter Intensive offers a virtual approach for dancers wanting to ditch diet culture and make peace with food. You can also learn more about Intuitive Eating for Dancers here.
- Seek trusted professionals like Registered Dietitians and mental health therapists who are versed in the care of disordered eating.
- Detox your media feeds of accounts that induce comparisons and second-guessing.
- Diversify your feed to reduce implicit bias. Follow dancers of all body types, shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities.
- Educate yourself about the negative implications of weight bias and fat phobia (resources below).
The bottom line: body weight and size are largely out of our immediate control and intentional efforts to lose weight (AKA diet) not only fail long-term but also feed into an oppressive culture that harms most of the population. For dancers, diet culture is one of the most prevalent contributors to the development of disordered eating and/or eating disorders. Healing from diet culture can help dancers flourish in physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
Want to learn more about combating weight stigma and the negative implications of diet culture? Check out these helpful resources: