I recently interviewed E. who wished to share her story but remain anonymous.
Q: How old were you when you started dancing?
A: 4 years old
Q: Tell us about your experience as a young dancer.
A: I loved to dance, it was my form of expression. I didn’t feel judged and it was my happy space. Honestly, taking away dance was my form of punishment, if my parents wanted me to do something all they had to do was threaten to stop sending me to dance.
Q: When did you start seeing the signs or symptoms of your eating disorder?
A: I grew up in a household where my mom was constantly on a diet and dessert was a once-a-day treat. As a growing child, I was made aware of how much I loved sweets and how much I ate (even though it wasn’t much at all). During elementary school, I would feel the need to emotionally eat and I would hoard food but I was so unaware at the time I didn’t realize my actions were unhealthy. I wouldn’t call my actions at that time an ED but rather disordered eating. It was during 2020 that my habits began spiralling downhill.
Q: How did you feel about your body in elementary school?
A: I didn’t necessarily notice my shape in elementary but in ballet, I guess we were all conditioned to become aware of how we looked. Because of this, I began sucking in my stomach to make myself fit the stereotype of a ballerina.
Q: How was your self-esteem?
A: I was conscientious, like every teenager, especially in middle school. I felt insecure with how I looked but now I’m glad to say it’s skyrocketed through the roof :)
Q: I'm curious, did you ever talk about your feelings with anyone or did you cope with food?
A: I would use food to cope and while my parents did their best to stress that they were a safe space, I never felt I was truly comfortable with them, something I feel many teenagers also deal with.
Q: What was going on in your life at the time?
A: I mean we had just entered quarantine and I was surrounded by my family 24/7.
Q: What else changed for you? Did you stop dancing? Seeing friends?
A: School was online and I wasn’t getting any social interaction. I coped by having Facetime calls constantly.
Q: What did you need at the time that you didn't get?
A: I tried to find a therapist starting in august 2020 but there were so many insurance problems and I basically had to go through the process on my own and so when I finally found one (that I had to privately pay for) it was over 6 months later, in 2021.
Q: Was there a specific moment or “time” when you would say it started?
A: I would say specifically it started in March/April of 2020.
Q: What is your diagnosis?
A: I was never allowed the privilege of a diagnosis.
Q: Help me understand what you mean by the privilege of a diagnosis.
A: To me, healthcare isn’t universal, especially not in the US. There are kids who have parents that don’t believe in mental health or that refuse to take their concerns seriously. It’s in cases like these where getting a diagnosis is a privilege, it’s not something easily accessible for everyone. I pushed for one but my parents were hesitant in case it would affect my future career.
Q: Career in dance?
A: They thought that if I got diagnosed with something, future companies looking to hire me would see this and it might affect my chances in life, they saw this only out of good intent but we all later learned this was false. Instead, I saw a licensed therapist who diagnosed me with an eating disorder. In cases like mine, I think diagnoses like this are ok. An “official” diagnosis from a psychologist/psychiatrist is not necessary to recover but can be a helpful tool used to guide treatment.
Q: Have you struggled with other aspects of mental health? Depression, anxiety?
A: Since I never had the opportunity to see a psychiatrist, I will never know what it is I ‘had’. Anxiety runs in my family so that is a possibility and at certain stages when my mental health was very bad. I would have a hard time getting out of bed, finding motivation for anything, and even the energy to put on a smile. I would say I definitely had a lot of symptoms of depression but I can’t make an accurate claim. I struggled with suicidal ideation and I actually made an attempt but luckily I’m still here today.
Q: What made you get help?
A: I realized that there were two paths I could take, one that led to my downfall or one where I could seek help and try to emerge as a better person. I was so, so exhausted with life.
Q: What stopped you from just staying where you were and continuing in your eating disorder? (Faith? Hope? Inner-strength?)
A: I guess I still had dreams in the world and I was raised to never quit and I guess this attribute forced me to choose the better path.
Q: What did treatment look like for you? Seeing a counselor? Dietitian? A treatment center?
A: Recovery was a one-team process, myself. After seeing a therapist for 2 visits, I decided she wasn’t helping and I decided to recover on my own. This meant using willpower to delete food tracking apps and slowly increasing my caloric consumption.
Q: Do you still go? If not, how do you take care of your body image and stay strong against diet culture in ballet?
A: You have to understand that the pressures from ballet are not directed towards you but more of a stereotypical view of dance. One needs to understand that dance is very accepting of all body types and that if it isn’t working for you, try something else. Sometimes it's better to quit and move on to better yourself.
Q: How did your family react and what was/is their role in your recovery, if any.
A: My family is very much ignorant of my mental health and in some ways, it’s my fault. I don’t like disclosing information to them because they always become defensive and they don't make an attempt to understand.(that makes total sense) In fact, I would say a lot of pressure from them caused my ED.
Q: Are you currently dancing?
A: Yes, I am.
Q: What is it like for you to be a ballet dancer with an eating disorder?
A: It was super hard, always looking at yourself in the mirror when usually the mirrors even lie.
Q: Are there any specific coping skills you use?
A: Journaling, stretching, dancing (sort of hypocritical), long showers.
Q: Do you think dance caused/contributed to you developing an eating disorder? Why?
A: I would say yes, to a certain degree. I began noticing my body shape when I was 10 and I would try to suck in my stomach to look like the other girls. There's such a huge emphasis on being thin.
Q: Were/are there any specific triggers for you in the dance studio?
A: Body checking in the mirror.
Q: What has helped(s) you cope and work through the hard times?
A: I really love investing in self-care, whatever that means for each individual. For me, that means taking a long hot shower, face masks, pampering myself. Journaling also helps as well as spending quality time with friends to distract yourself.
Q: What would you say to someone who is struggling?
A: Life doesn’t necessarily get any better, but you do. When you emerge from this you will have a completely new understanding of yourself that will make you a powerhouse. Try your best to keep on going, take it day by day and try to find little things in life to love.
Q: What type of support do you have right now?
A: My friends, myself.
Q: Do you have any advice for other dancers when it comes to their eating disorder recoveries?
A: Dance doesn’t have to be your life. It’s perfectly ok to take a break and maybe never return to dance classes. You have to do what's best for you.
Q: If you could say anything to your eating disorder what would you say?
A: You taught me a lot about myself and in certain ways, I’m grateful for those lessons but I would never wish it upon someone else. Ever.
Q: What have you learned about yourself through this interview experience?
A: It’s all about taking steps to heal, and doing this interview is just one example of how I am becoming stronger and healing myself.
Q: Do you feel there is stigma around eating disorders in dance?
A: I feel it is often normalized to have disordered habits, even in everyday society and dance just makes it worse.
Q: What do you think we can do to decrease stigma and increase awareness?
A: Recognize when our peers are participating in bad habits and call them out. Be more inclusive of all body types in the dance world.