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Laura Sheaffer
Health

Eating Disorders and Aesthetic Pressure on Ballerinas

It was during her pre-teen years that former ballerina and student Ana Elisa Abddala Rocha heard a teacher say: “If you don’t lose weight, you’re off the group and you won’t go to the festival”. Comments like this one are more frequent than we think in the ballet industry.

A research conducted at a ballet company in Londrina-PR and authorised by Faculdade Evangélica do Pará (Evangelical College of Pará) says that 17% of the 35 students show “severe body image distortion”, furthermore, the study also identified that abnormal eating habits is more evident on women.

 According to the student, the aesthetic standard of ballet is still heavily influenced by Russian dancers, which means tall and very thin. Therefore, the biotype expected of a dancer is extremely slim, even if nowadays more muscular physical structures are being inserted in ballet more often. Thus, it’s very common to observe a standardization reinforced inside the dance industry, which could lead to many psychological conflicts and even psychiatric issues. “I believe teachers are the great influencers of this”, says Rocha. “People around you also influence that, everyone associates ‘ballerinas’ with ‘thin people’”.

The theme of aesthetic pressure in dancers has even been approached in cinema. In “Black Swan”, Natalie Portman dives into the life of Nina, a ballerina who, due to her great appreciation and obsession with dancing, ends up living dark episodes of great psychological torment. “For everyone [...] ballet is a pink and perfect world; but it’s not like that, ballet can even drive you mad”, reinforces the former ballerina.

“In the backstage, it’s completely different”

Ballet establishes itself in an endless search for perfection and weightlessness, however it is necessary to observe the other side of the spectrum and realise that not everything is as beautiful as it seems.

The instructor and ballerina graduated by the Royal Academy of Dance, Giu Bontempi, shared personal moments during her journey as a dancer. According to the artist, many ballerinas in her social circle have dealt with eating disorders and face the consequences of that aesthetic demand to this day.

Bontempi also mentioned that there was a period in her life when she gained some kilograms due to private issues and, during that moment, she’d feel a constant sense of guilt. “I remember one person who had classes with me said: ‘to dance on a stage only really thin people can wear white, and since you look like this it’s better to wear black because it makes you thinner’”.

The professional dancer comments that, nowadays, she can deal better with the demands of ballet. “Today I see that ‘perfect’ is the best that we can do. It’s like all my life I’ve looked for perfection, and now I just look for balance”, she adds.

“It has everything to do with the psychological and the physical. It’s associated, there’s no way to separate them”, said the teacher. “This could cause future problems, such as giving up ballet, develop anorexia or even bulimia”.

The presence of eating disorders is a reality in the lives of many ballerinas. According with the previously mentioned research, 62,85% of the participating dancers has some type of bulimic behaviour and the majority of them present anorexic behaviours, which becomes worrying since these disorders affect both mental and physical health.

A look into the disorders

According to psychologist graduated by Universidade Católica de Santos (Catholic University of Santos) and post-graduated by Universidade de Campinas (Campinas University), Sandra Filatro, the eating disorders are consequences of an external dissatisfaction with self-image.

She explains that a disorder like anorexia starts in a conscious manner, that is, the patient is completely aware of what they’re doing and that is the moment when treatment should start. However, the specialist adds that usually, this period isn’t identified by this person’s family or social circle: “Many times, this isn’t given the value it needs, so this process keeps getting worse on all accounts”, she makes clear.

During the conversation, the psychologist adds that these types of disorders go beyond eating habits. Anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, irritability, constant mood swings (especially around meal times) and even social reduction are all symptoms of eating disorders. According to her, the patient starts avoiding places where their peers get together to eat.

When asked about in what ages it is most common to develop eating disorders, Filatro answered: “In the teen years, but when associated with ballet or sports, it’s a bit earlier. Ballerinas start very young, so when they are around 11, it’s already possible to find ties to eating disorders, both compulsion and anorexia”. According to her, this happens because it is between 14 and 16 that human beings start developing an identity.

Thus, the psychologist says that the treatment focused on mental health is essential in cases of self-image disorders. “It’s a multi-professional monitoring, you can’t treat an eating disorder without a doctor, a nutritionist and a psycologist”, she comments. “Therapy must be directed, that’s why the behavioural cognitive ones are the most effective”.

As reinforced by the psychologist, the treatment for eating disorders cannot happen without nutritional monitoring. Because of that, we’ve talked to the nutritionist Gabriela Fregolente, post-graduated in Functional and Sports Nutrition and Phytotherapy by UNIFESP.

The specialist commented that all ballerinas should go on periodic nutritional appointments. “For the dancers, I think it’s important to have a behavioural nutrition monitoring to make their relationship with food better, teach them to eat well and in a healthy way.”

Fregolente cited that eating disorders drastically harms patients in nutritional terms. According to her, a person with those psychopathies have alterations in biochemical exams (decrease in vitamins and proteins, anaemia and other nutritional deficiencies), constant and fast loss of weight, low BMI (Body Mass Index) and women can develop amenorrhea. The specialist concludes that a ballerina with eating disorders can have problems when practicing their dance, since she becomes physically incapacitated of keeping up her energy.

The professional also reinforces that the ideal method to lose weight is through nutritional and even psychological monitoring; if not, the patient can go through compulsions and, later, develop some sort of psychiatric disorder. “People who are already on restrictive diets have moments when they throw everything up in the air. So, the best way to go is for you to learn to eat everything, because that way you won’t go through restriction or compulsion, you make peace with food”.

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The article above was edited by Anna Bastos.

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Laura Vicaria

Casper Libero '23

Laura is jornalism student at Faculdade Casper Libero and a feminist in Brazil. She is passionate about fashion, pop culture and female power. Taking women to the top of journalistic positions is one of her biggest goals as a professional and supporter of gender equality.
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