Author Dawn Smith-Theodore, MA, MFT, CEDS, joined us to discuss her book, Tutu Thin: A Guide to Dancing Without an Eating Disorder. What follows are our questions in italics, and Dawn’s thoughtful responses.
You note a familiar eating disorder experience when you state, “Life had always been one goal after the other, with little appreciation for anything but the achievement. Yet these achievements were never enough, much like the numbers on the scale.” Please tell us more about this insight.
As the number dropped on the scale in the beginning of my journey through anorexia, I would tell myself that if I just lost 5 pounds that I would be happy. The eating disorder in my head had begun the deception that I believed. Five pounds turned to another five and eventually, I had lost over 25 pounds. No matter what I lost, it was never enough for my eating disorder. I could never be thin enough.
Very similarly, I have always been a very driven and determined person who would work hard to accomplish goals. When I would achieve one goal, I did not allow myself any time to enjoy the accomplishment until I was on to the next goal. This inability to appreciate the present left me pushing forward to what I felt I needed to do in order to be successful. With each accomplishment, I was pushed to another goal. The feeling was the same… “It is never enough”
I am still a very determined person, as I have realized this is part of my temperament. The difference is that I enjoy the process of achieving the goals that I set for myself and I have learned to appreciate my accomplishments.
You developed Tutu Thin: A Guide to Dancing Without an Eating Disorder specifically for dancers who have or suspect they have an Eating Disorder, their parents and their guardians. What is the prevalence of Eating Disorders in the dance community?
Dancers are 20 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than the general population. In the white middle class population, on the average, 1 in 100 will develop an eating disorder. In the ballet world, 1 in 5 dancers will develop an eating disorder.
What are your recommendations for dancers and their families regarding nutrition?
As a dancer, you need proper nutrition to fuel your body to perform at its best. It is important to learn from a young age to eat balanced meals for the rest of your life as opposed to going on a crash diet for a certain role or audition. You are an athlete and your body is your instrument. Hence, you need to keep it functioning well. This can be difficult as dance studios are often filled with obsessive talk about weight and new diets. It is important that you have a solid sense of what you need to eat as a dancer and not engage in unhealthy dieting behavior. Being educated about nutrition and what you need to eat in order to maintain your weight as a dancer will help eliminate the chances of developing an eating disorder.
As a dancer, it is so important that you have food with you during the day. Plan your day the night before and include all your meals and snacks. Be sure that you leave enough time to eat your food and always take snacks and meals with you. If you are rehearsing or in class, you may run late so always be prepared. Remember that food is the fuel for your body to be able to dance and perform. Dancers who are prepared each day with meals and snacks will be able to be flexible. Avoid going more than 2–3 hours without a meal or snack. You do not have to be perfect with your food, but consistency is very important. Remember to listen to your body—hunger and fullness are built in regulators, we just have to learn to listen.
Dancers and perfectionism – Can you please explain how this combination may be a slippery slope?
Dance breeds perfectionism. Perfectionism is the trait or temperament of a person who is striving for high-performance standards—flawlessness with a strong drive and motivation to achieve their goals. Temperament is the way an individual thinks, behaves and reacts in their environment. People can be influenced by their environment as well as by their genetics. Perfectionists will have self-discipline, and an obsession with the end result. They are conscientious and have a great work ethic.
When a dancer stands at the barre with the other dancers, everyone is striving for perfection. Perfection is what is perceived on stage, but there is a journey to get there. It is important for the dancer to master technique. To work in class each day is a part of the journey. Setting realistic goals is important so that the dancer does not put too much pressure on his/herself. The goal of focusing on the process as opposed to the end goal is essential for a dancer to understand. It is not an easy concept to grasp.
The goal to be the best dancer in the class or in the company is an example of how perfectionism is like chasing the rainbow. The high standards set by a dancer will motivate that person to continue to push beyond their capabilities to achieve the highest arabesque, the most turns or the lead in a ballet or show. There is always a carrot that is dangling ahead of the dancer, even after achieving success. Sometimes this drive to achieve perfection can become detrimental to their work as a dancer, and eventually lead to an eating disorder.
Why do you feel it is important to have “balance” in a dancer’s life?
When a dancer does not have balance or perspective, he/she may begin to be obsessive. This obsessional state can manifest itself in the pursuit of being the perfect dancer, having the perfect body or pursuing the ideal role in the next show. It is through the lack of balance in life—which includes nutrition, sleep, and relationships—that a dancer can find him/herself on a negative path.
If an individual is only focused on becoming a dancer, and finds most of his/her time spent in the studio, there is not a lot of time for relationships. This is when an unhealthy relationship with oneself can possibly begin to develop, and it becomes an escape from the pressure and stress to succeed. There is a lack of balance and no outlet for emotions. The development of an eating disorder serves as a method to numb out and mask the disappointment that can come with working hard and not getting the recognition.
Dance incorporates mind, body and spirit in the art form. Learning to find all of these within the self and managing internal struggles with external pressures can present quite a challenge to find balance in the life of a dancer. It is the journey we are all on as dancers. It is never about the end result being the perfect job or gig, but about the journey we embark upon to find each job.
On that journey, we also need to develop the balance within oneself to sustain the ability to tolerate rejection as well as accomplishments.
If you find that balance as a dancer, you will believe in yourself and know that you are proud of what you accomplish. It will also allow you to have belief in your talents, which will lessen the stress, insecurities, and pressure you feel to succeed. It will become about the journey to be on pointe!
Can you please share some suggestions for dancers on how they can respond to critical comments about their body size and shape?
It is so important to feel good about who you are as a person and a dancer. Remember that your body is what allows you to dance. Musicians take care of the instruments they play and dancers need to care for their bodies.
Dancers come in all shapes and sizes. Look for positive things about yourself and your body. Treat it well so it will allow you to continue to dance.
What would you like parents of dancers to know regarding how they can help guide their children to maintain physical and mental health?
Emphasize the importance of who your child is as a person rather than the size of their body. It is important that your dancer has good self-esteem and is confident in whom they are. This confidence will get a child far in his/her life as a dancer or in any career your child may choose. If a child is happy living life and doing what he/she loves, food will not have the power in their life. If your young dancer understands this and feels good about the person they are, then your child on the right track.
About the author:
Dawn Theodore, MA, MFT, CEDS, is a leader in the treatment of eating disorders, adding to her therapy practice the insights of a dance professional and teacher, studio owner, and dancer who has personally recovered from anorexia nervosa. She is currently the Director of Day Treatment Services for Monte Nido and Affiliates. She also has a private therapy practice in Calabasas and Brentwood, California.
She appeared on Health Zone with Amy Hendel and Recovery Talk Network as a therapist with a specialty in the eating disorder field. She has also been a guest teacher at Pepperdine University and California State University Dominguez Hills. She appeared on several episodes of the Lifetime Network documentary about the treatment of eating disorders, “Starving Secrets.”
Dawn owned and operated her dance studio in Calabasas for twenty-five years. Before opening her studio, Dawn lived in New York City where she taught and performed for the legendary Henry LeTang. Dawn has been featured in many productions, commercials and TV shows.
She has written the chapter “Fitness or Fanatic” (with Carolyn Costin) in her rewrite of the 1997 The Dieting Daughter, released in 2013. Dawn has also written for The Recovery Journal on the relationship between eating disorders and crystal methamphetamines.