Winning the Battle against Eating Disorders

By Gowen, Katie | Dance Teacher, September 2004 | Go to article overview
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Winning the Battle against Eating Disorders

Gowen, Katie, Dance Teacher

One dance teacher shares what she learned through her recovery from anorexia, and gives advice on what you can do to support students with eating disorders and those at risk for developing one.

It has been said that we teach others what we most need to learn ourselves. As a dance teacher who struggled with anorexia nervosa from a young age, these words have particular meaning for me. I have learned a great deal in my journey through dance and anorexia, from performer to teacher; now it is my mission to instill a sense of positive body image in my own students.

To date, researchers have yet to pinpoint a cause for anorexia and other eating disorders. Generally, it is believed that eating disorders are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, social, cultural and family factors. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, extreme emotions, attitudes and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues characterize eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

It is important to emphasize that dancing did not cause my eating disorder. It did, however, provide a place for it to worsen. Every day, I spent hours in the studio obsessing over my lean lines, turnout, flexibility and body positioning. Outside of the studio my obsession turned into calorie counting and food manipulation. Unfortunately, my dedication was praised by my teachers, though I in no way blame them, and was rewarded over the years with countless ribbons, trophies and awards. Eventually I went on to perform and teach professionally, while majoring in dance at a respectable university.

During college, and for the first time, instead of being praised for my obsession with perfection, I was wrongly suspected of using drugs to stay thin and energetic. As my body began to deteriorate, my risk of injury increased and I had more trouble getting through class. Eventually I was asked to take a hiatus in order to recover mentally and physically and, while potential legal issues were probably a consideration, my professors' decision was made predominantly out of concern for my health.

At the time I was angry and confused, but now I'm grateful. My behavior was hazardous not only to myself, but also to other dancers. It is not uncommon for those with eating disorders to compete with one another, trying to eat less or lose weight more quickly. They share tricks for purging or hiding their weight. Unfortunately, since dancers constantly share diet and exercise tips with one another, it may be difficult to separate those with eating disorders from those striving to reach their physical peak. Teachers ought to consider discouraging unsupervised conversation about food, weight and diet aids. Instead, lead regular discussions with parents and students about proper nutrition, or invite a nutritionist to visit class and speak with your dancers.

A medical doctor, therapist, psychiatrist and dietitian are essential players in the recovery process. In-patient treatment facilities are usually the best way to go. (In my case, these were the most effective in helping me recover-they saved my life a few times over. I, as many anorectics, did not respond well to out-patient treatment.)

If a student needs to take time off, it is important that she feel supported by her teachers and peers. While I was in treatment, the cards and letters I received from fellow dancers were invaluable sources of encouragement. Plus, when the student is able to return to class, the transition will be easier if she has been keeping in touch with her fellow dancers.

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