Sources of Disordered Eating Patterns between Ballet Dancers and Non-Dancers

By Anshel, Mark H. | Journal of Sport Behavior, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Sources of Disordered Eating Patterns between Ballet Dancers and Non-Dancers


Anshel, Mark H., Journal of Sport Behavior


Disordered eating may be defined on a continuum from eating disorders (e.g., anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa) to preoccupations with weight and restrictive eating (Wein & Micheli, 2002). However, there are several differences between disordered eating and eating disorders. For example, while a disordered eating pattern is a habitual reaction to life situations, an eating disorder is a mental illness (American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th ed., 1987). In addition, disordered eating is not usually accompanied by frequent thoughts of food, eating, and one's physical appearance. Persons with eating disorders, on the other hand, have compulsive thoughts of food, eating, and one's body. While disordered eating may lead to transient weight changes and nutritional problems, major medical complications are very rare. Eating disorders, by contrast, often lead to serious medical problems, with a mortality rate of 2-10% (Comer, 2001). Finally, each condition is treated differently. Disordered eating requires education and the problem may diminish without treatment. Eating disorders, however, require specific medical and mental health treatment, without which the problem will persist. These differences are relevant because there exists far more published research exists examining eating disorders than disordered eating among ballet participants. This study addressed both eating disorders and disordered eating patterns, including their relationship to selected dispositions.

Several researchers (e.g., Garner & Garfinkel, 1980; Hamilton, Brooks-Gunn, & Warren, 1985) contend that the incidence of disordered eating patterns is estimated to be higher in models, dancers, and athletes than in the general female population. For example, the prevalence of anorexia nervosa is higher for ballerinas compared with the general American population of adolescent females (Brooks-Gunn, Warren, & Hamilton, 1987). In fact, dance students are seven times more likely than high school students to develop anorexia nervosa (Clough & Wilson, 1993). Brooks-Gunn et al. (1987) reported that one-third of a sample of professional dancers had a disordered eating pattern, while Hergenroeder, Wong, Fiorotto, Smith, and Klish (1991) found that 43% of the Houston Ballet Academy was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. By contrast, Holderness, Brooks-Gunn, and Warren (1994) reported that dancers and nondancers did not differ significantly with regard to the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

While the physical and technical demands of dance may be similar to other highly competitive sports, the aesthetic requirements of body image beyond the functional requirements for dance are fundamentally different (Calabrese, Kirkendall, Floyd, Rapoport, Williams, Weiker, & Bergfeld, 1983). According to Hamilton, Brooks-Gunn, and Warren (1986) and Pierce, Daleng, and McGowan (1993), dancers who fail to meet and maintain a predetermined ideal body composition are rapidly "deselected" from professional participation. Further, it appears that age 21 yrs is the point at which it is determined whether a dancer will become "successful," after which time these chances are greatly reduced (Druss & Silverman, 1979).

Another factor that exacerbates the likelihood of disordered eating patterns among dancers is that exercise alone, in the absence of strict dieting, may not result in the desired weight loss. For example, Cohen, Segal, Witriol, and McArdle (1982), in their study of 15 professional ballet dancers from the American Ballet Theatre, found the caloric expenditure for an entire one hour ballet class to average only 200 kcal/hr for women, compared to the caloric expenditure of about 500/hr kcal for swimming and skating (Brooks-Gunn et al., 1987). According to Cohen et al. (1982) and Cohen, Potosnak, Frank, and Baker (1985), these findings provide evidence to suggest that classical ballet is a relatively inefficient method of burning calories, and, for this reason, dancing, without a dietary intervention, cannot produce weight reduction and maintain the low weights required for the classical physique.

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