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Ways to spot an eating disorder

Dancing gives attention to our bodies in such beautiful, yet scrutinizing ways; calling for technique, flexibility, and very specific lines. It sometimes feels impossible to check every box that the dance world places as a priority. Thankfully, the dance world is improving their standard for not only encompassing gender and race, but also body shapes and not using them as a definition of success.

As a former dancer it’s easy to look back and find memories of past teachers and peers making comments about my shape. It’s unfortunate to say, but I’m certain I’m not the only one with negative memories surrounding body shame; and while this probably affects more dancers than not, it becomes a larger issue if dancers act upon this negative self-worth to try to change their physique to fit into a mold. This can otherwise be phrased as: an eating disorder.

What does an eating disorder (ED)look like? An eating disorder (ED) is characterized by abnormal or disturbed eating habits, and can include distress around food and exercise. There is a misconception that eating disorders fit inside a certain box, but in reality they can affect anyone. These words are scary and hard to soak up, and can be even more frightening if you have a person close to you who you may suspect is struggling with an ED. I’m here to help you distinguish what some common warning signs for an ED.

1) Your friend is constantly looking at labels and doing math to figure out their daily intake. As a dancer exerting so much energy throughout the day, it is important to know what you are fueling your body with to avoid injury. But there is a point when it can lead to restriction. Some examples are: counting calories to make sure you don’t go over your “daily limit,” being strict on certain ingredients that diet culture tells us is “bad”. And being picky when they go out to eat (only ordering a drink, or a side, or a small salad).

2) You have stopped seeing your friend eat in front of people. Eating disorders often tell the person they affect that they shouldn’t eat in front of anyone - creating a cycle of shame around food. This causes an individual suffering with an ED to believe that eating in public is embarrassing or ‘gross’ and can lead to only eating in private or refusing to eat at all. Your friend may use the excuses “I ate before I came,” or “I’m not hungry right now.”

3) You notice your friend goes to the bathroom immediately after eating a meal or snack. This can be a hard one to associate with an ED, but if you notice it becomes a constant habit, there is a possibility your friend is using specific ED symptoms. This can be a way for them to feel as if they are relieving shame from food or reducing the possibility of gaining weight.

4) Your Friend is Body Checking If you feel as though you notice a change in the way your friend looks at themselves or they are looking in the mirror to examine different parts of their body than is related to dance - it may be a red flag. Other examples of body checking may be: putting fingers around wrist to “measure,” pulling clothes or dance skirt tight, or pinching skin.

5) Your friend is withdrawing and is becoming increasingly more tired. You notice your friend is less bright and bubbly than usual and “zones out” more frequently during class. Your friend may be yawning more, often asking for combinations to be repeated, and having a harder time during allegro. They might also seem more temperamental and impatient. Not only does lack of food and nutrients affect your energy levels, it also affects your mood and ability to concentrate.

6) Constant shivering and/or complaining of being cold This can happen when our body goes without proper nutrients for a long period of time. This is one of the more extreme warning signs of an eating disorder.

7) Exercising or excessive movement before, after, or between classes. Cross training is an important aspect of our dance training. There is a difference in cross training to make us stronger dancers, and adding more exercise to lose weight. This can be seen in your friend going to the gym before or after class, or constant movement such as pacing, small exercises (lunges, squats, sit-ups, etc.), and not sitting down..

What to do when you believe someone has an ED: This may be the most difficult thing to have to figure out in this whole process due to doubts and the scariness of confrontation surrounding the situation: “What if they get mad at me?”

“What if I wrongly suspected them?”

“Who do I talk to?” My first piece of advice: it’s always better to address it and be wrong, than ignore it and be right.

If you come from a place of love and compassion, bringing it up to your friend or a loved one will help them understand that you care about them. Bringing it up is the hardest part, and often I tell dancers that if you don’t feel comfortable bringing it up to your friend directly, it’s best to have a conversation with a teacher you trust or your friend’s parents. Oftentimes you are probably not the only one who sees the warning signs, so asking a teacher for help in starting this conversation with your friend is a good start.

Some samples to start this conversation may be: “So I notice that you are reducing the amount of snacks you are eating between classes, is there a reason why?” “I feel as though ______ is always going to the bathroom after she eats, has she mentioned to you anything about being sick?” “I noticed that you went to the gym after ballet last night, is something bothering you that I should know about?” “Have you noticed a time when you began to feel cold more often? Do you feel like something changed around that time?”

If you do not feel like you are comfortable or safe to have this conversation with a teacher or your friend’s parents, talking with your own parents to determine how to go about this is another good option. If all of these options do not feel like safe possibilities, you can call or text the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at (800)-931-2237 or

Instagram Accounts for Positivity and Help Around EDs

○ @myeasytherapy ○ @thebodylovesociety ○ @theeatingdisordercenter

○ @healingisfreedom

Blog by: Brooke Lindquist

Brooke Lindquist is a dance instructor, choreographer and mental health worker based out of the Twin Cities, MN. Her vocation is with a residential eating disorder treatment clinic where she facilitates mental health practices daily. She has seen the impacts eating disorders have on the dance community and hopes to spread awareness through her practice and work with young professionals.

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