As a dance teacher, you've almost certainly had to talk to a student about her or his weight, at one point or another. (You may have even had memorable conversations or situations in your own dance training—or maybe it's something that affected you as a teacher.) It's a conversation that requires sensitivity, so that your students develop healthy relationships with food. Here are four of our best tips on spotting an eating disorder in a student, how to talk to a student with a suspected ED and what you can do as their teacher.
Look for the signs.
There are many physical and behavioral signs typical of someone with an eating disorder. If you notice her layering clothing for warmth, rapid weight loss, depression and irritability, among other things, intervention is needed.
Focus on food behaviors.
Sports psychologist Dr. Brian Goonan suggests pointing out tendencies you perceive to be typical of someone with an eating disorder. Good examples include: “I notice you haven't been eating your lunch with the other students," or “You seem to be really picky about what you eat lately." Never accuse someone outright of having an eating disorder.
Prove that you eat regular meals.
Emily Harrison, an Atlanta Ballet faculty member, former company member and registered dietitian, says that when she teaches, she always brings snacks for herself, like an apple or carrot sticks. Then, during a break, she'll eat it in front of the students. She'll sometimes eat her lunch in the hallway around them, too, just to show that eating is part of her schedule. “I think we need to model good behavior," she says.
Talk privately about body concerns.
Don't draw attention to a dancer's body changes in front of others, even to praise it, says Harrison. If you are concerned about a dancer—if she drops a concerning amount of weight over a few weeks or a couple months, especially if it causes her to lose strength and stamina during class, or if other students have begun talking about it, speak with the dancer privately in a positive way. “Always start with, 'I care about you, and I want you to be healthy,'" Harrison says. Then, “'I've noticed your body has changed over the last few months, and here's why I am concerned.'" If you think the student is at the point of being in danger—significant weight loss, skin color has changed, extra body-hair growth—call in the parents, Harrison says. Wingert says they tend to respond in one of two ways: “Either they'll be in complete denial or they'll start to sob and say, 'We don't know what to do.'" In the cases where a parent doesn't think there's a problem, Wingert will ask that the dancer get a doctor's clearance before continuing classes.