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My Experience With Eating Disorders in the Dance World

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Northeastern chapter.

“Suck your stomach in.” “I can see your lunch.” I have heard these phrases almost everyday for the 12 years that I spent at the dance studio. I would spend all of my time after school in tights and a leotard hearing all about how the food we ate to keep our bodies nourished looked bad on our bodies.

This led to somewhat of a culture at my dance studio. My friends and I would commonly restrict ourselves before competitions in order to look as thin as possible in our costumes. Team dinners were spent staring at plates of food and barely touching it. I stopped dancing nearly five years ago, yet I can still hear my coaches barking these phrases. 

Because of the culture that surrounds so many studios, eating disorders have become commonplace, and sometimes even encouraged, within them. An estimated 9% of the population has had a diagnosed eating disorder, while about 12% of dancers suffer from them according to Teen Rehab. The statistics do not include normalized eating disorder behaviors. When I was at a studio, restricting was not a sign of anything abnormal. In fact, it was what everyone did. Dancers that did not partake in restricting were seen as strange for not wanting their costumes to be a little loose. 

When I left the studio, I continued to feel unhappy with myself and my body that was no longer dancing six days per week. But when I left, I realized that the ‘normal’ behaviors at the studio were actually very wrong. I got stares when I joked about how I couldn’t eat before a competition. Friends pointed out how unhealthy it was. And then, COVID hit, and I spiraled out of control.

I was 16 when I finally started to work on correcting my inner dialogue of disordered eating. It was 14 years after I took my first dance class. During my spiral, I lost 30 pounds in a few weeks. Restrictive eating habits and counting calories were the only sense of control I had in my life at such a difficult time. The behaviors that had been pushed on me as normal from an early age were killing me.

My heart rate became dangerously slow. My vitals were in the trash. My blood work showed malnourishment in every single vitamin in my body. I was dying slowly, but I was doing it to myself. 

When I was first diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, I was very confused. These behaviors that were supposedly disordered eating were the foundation of my entire dance career. What was so wrong about quitting carbs so I could jump higher? Why did I have to eat three meals a day when one would let me stay under 500 calories per day? 

It has been three years since I began recovering. Still, I find it hard to grasp disordered behaviors. Because dance normalizes disordered eating, it is very difficult to identify and change symptoms of my eating disorder, because they are normal to me. They are normal for many dancers. 

It has been almost 17 years since I put on a pair of tights, a leotard and tiny ballet slippers, 17 years filled with disordered eating that became a normal part of my life. Every doctor that I have had over the years has said that none of my answers to routine questions indicate disordered eating, yet my labs still show, years later, that I am severely malnourished. They question why I do not view my unhealthy habits as abnormal, but that is the culture at the dance studio. For myself, I had no guidance to see the signs of disordered eating. All of my friends were engaging in it as well. Coaches almost encouraged us or displayed their own symptoms in a joking matter.

For dancers like me, there is a very high risk for eating disorders. It is due to a long systematic pattern of behaviors being beaten down into students that want to achieve the perfect body: thin legs, stick skinny, a walking ghost. If healthy behaviors don’t start to be encouraged by coaches, I know the pattern will continue. More young dancers will begin to see themselves in a negative way and engage in disordered eating habits. Dancers are about three times more likely to develop an eating disorder according to Rachel Fine, professional dancer turned registered dietician at Dance Nutrition. Without a positive environment, we will never get better. 

There is help available. Contact NEDA if you or someone you know may have disordered eating.

Rachel Mahoney

Northeastern '26

Aspiring journalist that loves to write. Especially interested in forms of investigative journalism, current events, women's rights, LGBT+ rights, and open to writing other stories. I love to write stories and share them.