Challenges of Recovery in Ballet Culture

It’s no secret that ballet culture celebrates a long, lean figure. The pressure on ballet dancers to maintain this aesthetic is constant and for many can lead to battling food/body struggles throughout ones’ career.

Dancers are at increased risk of developing eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia nervosa. In fact, a study found that dancers are three times more likely to suffer from eating disorders than individuals in the general population.

There’s no doubt that there have been recent improvements in how ballet companies are approaching the topic of body weight and size expectations.  At minimum, there is reflection and efforts to improve the culture, especially in light of the #MeToo movement and the recent flurry of criticism of ballet company culture.  Dancers like Misty Copeland, the first African-American principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, are breaking barriers and redefining what “ballerina” look like. Her message is that of strength, determination, and overcoming stereotypes.

As a former professional dancer with the Miami City Ballet, I intimately understand the pressures of the ballet world. In every ballet company, there’s the dreaded “fat talk,” an unofficial meeting in which company management bring dancers in to encourage them to lose weight or “improve condition” so as to best conform to the management’s aesthetic.  Perhaps the term varies from one company to the next, but most dancers are familiar with this dreaded practice.

Many dancers struggle with disordered eating.  On some level, it’s almost impossible not to given the extreme pressure and focus on weight. Not surprisingly, it’s not uncommon for disordered eating in a dancer to turn into a full-blown eating disorder. I’ve worked with many dancers throughout my career, supporting them to recovery as they navigate the challenge of doing this difficult therapeutic work while concurrently engaging in a ballet career.

Remaining in ballet often means having to maintain a body weight that is clinically underweight (a body weight considered too low for the individual to be healthy). Full recovery really isn’t possible if one’s body weight remains suppressed.  Keeping your weight down (or “suppressed”) means that there are restrictive eating practices firmly in place (i.e. chronic dieting).  For someone with an eating disorder, that restrictive lifestyle invariably keeps him/her locked into a cycle of over-control and hyper-focus on eating.  In some cases, unfortunately, it takes leaving dance all together to allow for the space to fully normalize one’s eating and weight… and recover.  I’ve seen many dancers make the decision to leave ballet in an effort to finally find health and peace with food/weight.

One of the gifts of my experience is that it has given me an intimate understanding of the pressures that dancers face and has informed my ability to support struggling dancers with a great deal of sensitivity. These sensitivities extend beyond the dance studio. My Columbus Park colleagues and I have deep experience working closely with people in many performance-based careers, such as athletes, actors, and models. We are familiar with the intricacies associated with being a performer and the added pressures that these careers can put on the body.

Columbus Park is the leading outpatient eating disorder treatment center in New York City. Learn more about the premier evidence-based, outpatient treatment center for eating disorders.