NYC-based freelance writer Tatiana Munoz holds an MA in journalism from Syracuse University.
There’s no question about it: The media is saturated with images of the underweight, malnourished and downright frail. You can’t walk by a newsstand or turn on the television without being exposed to the weight worries of Hollywood stars and super-thin models.
It’s enough to make even the most confident person feel vulnerable and self-conscious. But now imagine what it’s like to witness this alarming trend while you’re still young, impressionable and confused. The consequences for children are proving catastrophic.
More than seven million women and one million men suffer from eating disorders in the U.S., according to The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. If that weren’t frightening enough, 86 percent of sufferers report onset of the disease before their 20th birthday, meaning the young students in your classes are at a heightened risk.
Athletes who compete in aesthetic sports are especially susceptible to eating disorders. “Sports like dance and gymnastics put more emphasis on the body—specifically, on lean bodies,” says Nancy Clark, sports nutritionist and author of Sports Nutrition Guidebook. “It’s the idea that the thinner you are, the better you’ll be and the further you’ll excel in your sport.”
According to a 2002 study of 425 female college athletes conducted by registered dietician Katherine Beals, 55 percent said they felt pressured to maintain a certain weight. While most respondents acknowledged they put the pressure on themselves, a good number reported feeling pressure from coaches and teammates.
So how can you help your students shine on the dance floor without burning out backstage? “Like it or not, strong and lean physiques are part of the art of the sport,” says Molly Morgan, a registered dietician and owner of Creative Nutrition Solutions. But Morgan is quick to add that the root of an eating disorder runs much deeper than what happens in dance class. “What causes an eating disorder is an extremely complex combination of factors. I would never say a dance coach is the cause of disordered eating,” she says. “I do, however, think [a coach] can have a negative impact on the athlete.”
Your students look to you for guidance and direction, so take utmost care in what you say and, more important, how you say it. If you notice a student has gained weight, don’t be too quick to confront her. It’s important to remember that teenage bodies are constantly growing and changing. They are likely to hit a growth spurt and readjust before it ever becomes problematic.
Should you notice that a dancer’s weight gain is leading to long-term performance issues, talk to the entire troupe about good nutrition and healthy eating, without mentioning counting calories or setting weight goals. Singling out one student might make her feel like she is being attacked or pressured to drop the weight quickly, explains Dr. Laird Birmingham, director of The Eating Disorders Program at The University of British Columbia.
But one of the most important things you can do to prevent eating disorders among dancers is to approach the subject as you would a new routine: Lead by example. Just as you would demonstrate new dance steps, practice healthy eating habits and maintain a positive body image of yourself.
According to Clark, the seeds of eating disorders are planted early. If a child grows up listening to parents who constantly complain about their weight or teachers who are always dieting, they are likely to pick up the habit. Instead, let them see you eating and making healthy choices. “Make eating politically correct,” advises Clark. “Talk about food in a positive light. Like a car needs gas, your body needs fuel in order to stay strong and healthy. Demonstrate that food is fuel, not the enemy.”