I'm A Backstage Mom: Dancers and Eating Disorders

May 24, 2010 Laura Collins

I am a tap dance student, and last night was our yearly recital. As I stood in the wings, literally, reading a review copy for an upcoming book about anorexia, I was surrounded by dancers of all ages and shapes. As a job hazard, I watch the kids for signs of eating disorders. Since no one is eating on the stage - or face the wrath of Miss Linda - you may wonder what I'm looking for.

Signs of Eating Disorders - Weight Loss Isn't Necessarily One of Them

Well, one thing I'm not looking at is weight. I know most people think you can see an eating disorder by body size but you can't. Some people are constitutionally thin while healthy, and others naturally zaftig in their healthiest state. More to the point, if someone with an eating disorder has already lost weight to the point it is noticeable to others, then a lot of people have already dropped the ball: diagnosis and treatment need to happen at the earliest behaviors and not wait for visible weight loss. In children, in particular, weight loss isn't the first medical effect of undereating: failure to gain height and expected body composition isn't visible at all. You also can't tell an anorexic by weight loss because many patients are underweight at what in others would be "average" weight and a percentage are undernourished at higher than average weight.

Bulimia doesn't generally cause weight loss at all, making it all the more insidious and dangerous. Although these patients do restrict, their eating is erratic, with cycles of under and over-eating. EDNOS, the catchall term for eating disorders that do not fall strictly into anorexia or bulimia (but are no less dangerous and actually account for 60% of eating disorder patients), can leave patients at a wide range of weights and body composition.

What Anorexia and Bulimia Can Look Like

So, despite the tight, body conscious costumes around me, I wasn't looking at weight. I'm sensitive to a particular affect, a facial expression that I often see on people with active anorexia. Sunken eyes that are still oddly bright. I look for lanugo - a layer of downy hair the body uses to try to stay warm despite a lack of energy inside. Dull hair and skin but with unusually thick eyelashes. I watch for both Russell's Sign - a mark on the hand from purging - and 'chipmunk cheeks,' from enlarged salivary glands. Social isolation and body checking are harder to observe in a setting like this, but something dance teachers and parents can look for between classes at dance school.

Wearing more clothes, yet sweating less, than other students can be a sign of undereating. Rigid rituals and distress at changes of plan. Talking about food when not eating it. Recoiling when offered food. Watching other people eat with great attention. Constant motion that is driven, not enjoyed or part of learning.

A Bad Environment Can Breed Eating Disorders

Perhaps just as important is looking at what school we're with. Our dance school is big on encouraging nutrition, hydration, and a range of body types. Boys are welcomed. All ages are welcomed. There is an emphasis on fun and discipline rather than self-punishment and achievement. The older kids are mentors to the younger rather than on snobbish pedestals. Parents often take classes, and our dance teachers perform, too, with us. Not all dance schools have this kind of environment, and it matters. I know I couldn't study there if it was not this way and even though I'm on the lookout for ill kids, I also know I'm less likely to find them at this school, too.

APA Reference
Collins, L. (2010, May 24). I'm A Backstage Mom: Dancers and Eating Disorders, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 17 from

Author: Laura Collins

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