True Story: I Was An Anorexic Ballerina

[Update: This post is old. Read more recent stories about anorexia.]

My name is Sarah, and I am a ballerina.  I was a dancer from the time I was 4 years old until the age of 20. I became more serious about dance, specifically in ballet in my early teens and decided to focus on that, rather than tap or modern dance, because the company I danced with had a very large ballet collaboration with girls of every age and it had always fascinated me. I wanted to be a part of it. When I was in my early twenties, I moved away from the studio I had danced at my whole life. I was a good dancer, but I knew then and still know that I did not have what it takes to be a professional ballerina.

To become a professional ballerina, the first thing you need is a lot of time – to rehearse for multiple hours at a time, every day. As a student, I couldn’t devote that time. Your body has to look a certain way, all the way down to your feet. Long, lean and thin are the adjectives that describe the way a ballerina should look. It takes an incredible amount of time and effort to make movements look effortless. People don’t realize this.

There are constant injuries that come with dancing, as with any sport (and yes, we dancers feel that dancing is a sport), that are, many times, career shattering. For me, it was a torn hamstring during a high school competition – not a strain or a sprain, I literally tore the muscle in a few places. It took months to recover physically. Meanwhile, blisters, and grossly enough, blisters under blisters (ew, I know) were every day occurrences, on top of other muscle strains, Achilles issues, and more. I being an increasingly insecure dancer. My skill-set was perfectly fine, but I feared getting injured again.

The eating part of being a ballerina, and keep in mind that I was never a professional, is hard to comprehend. When you think of athletes, you generally don’t think of them starving themselves. But ballerinas work an obscene amount of hours on toning muscles, cardio, and stretching, on very few calories. This is simply the life of a ballerina. I was never bulimic (I try to throw up as infrequently as possible, for any reason), but when I was dancing, I definitely took dietary supplements/appetite suppressants and kept to an extremely limited diet each day.

There is always someone who is thinner than you are, or who may be a better dancer, and the desire to have that “edge” over her, drives you to do things you wouldn’t normally do – diet, work more hours, sleep less. While I never dropped my body fat down low enough to skip my periods, this happens to a lot of ballerinas (and other female athletes).  When you look at pictures of professional ballerinas, you notice they don’t have “normal sized” breasts, and they almost look like girls who are just getting their first bras.You need to be small so that the male ballet dancers can do lifts, and even the girls who aren’t being lifted need to be small.

In fact, I now have a heart condition. I don’t have a proven direct link, but I would bet money on the fact that it was caused from taking those dietary supplements. Being a dancer, you want to (scratch that) NEED TO look graceful and fluid. The costumes are beautiful, but you “know” they’d be even more beautiful on a smaller body. And so you skip lunch daily, or maybe you don’t eat breakfast. You have a lunch that consists of only very low-calorie, non-fat foods (and very little of even that), and then eventually, you’re just “too busy” to eat dinner with your family. It’s classic anorexia, added with hours of dancing each day/week. And for me, it just wasn’t sustainable.

I started doing ballet again last year, after several years off, and was amazed at how much I LOVED it again – I loved how it felt, I loved how my muscles changed back to dancers’ muscles, I was so happy, and sometimes I was too happy to eat… but then I started recognizing that I was slipping into bad habits. (It’s still painful to look at myself in a mirror, under lights, in a leotard). I still dance – mostly at clubs with my friends – and I was a ballerina for Halloween this year, wearing my favorite costume from years ago. I still have body image issues, though I eat pretty healthy and maintain a healthy weight (I’m 5’6″ and weigh 125 lbs on a good day). So while I may not take formal lessons any longer, I still have the ballerina mindset. I don’t think you ever lose that. It’s a tough life, being a dancer.

(Top photo – The Royal Ballet: Swan Lake, via Getty; bottom – Sarah as a ballerina for Halloween this year.)

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You can reach this post's author, Sarah Young, on twitter.
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    • mommyk8

      I’m taking my 5 Y.o. to her first ballet recital tonight. As a mom, this sport scares the crap out of me. She loves it though, so I will support her but remain ever vigilant at the dinner table, which hopefully will never need become an issue. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jocelyn @ Peace.Love.Nutrition

      I was also a ballet dancer who struggled with an eating disorder also. There is a lot of pressure in the industry and most people don’t naturally have the required body type. Here’s what I wrote about my struggle:

      http://peacelovenutrition.wordpress.com/2010/03/02/how-i-got-healthy/

    • Sahaga

      Ballet caused me to have eating issues as well. Being in front of a mirror with other pre-pubescent/pubescent girls, all in tights and leotards, all being told to do the exact same thing and look the same while doing can really mess with some girls (myself included).
      Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade my ballet training for the world. It has given me so much in life but it also gave me very poor body image for a long time.
      When I was 15 I discovered belly dance, a dance form in which women are supposed to have hips and thighs and breasts and even a little bit of belly. It was though this dance form that I learned to love my body. I love my body enough that I can go into a ballet class again, and not care what I look like in tights and a leotard.

    • Anna

      This article can easily be used by aspiring anorexics as a how-to guide. Clearly the author did not intend this, but her casual use of details (low caloric intake, diet pills, no need to throw up) will be seen by those susceptible to eating disorders as a success story. She mentions her regrettable heart condition that most likely developed as a result of her illness, but I guarantee that that will not be considered heavily by those seeking thinspiration.

      Her statement that she still has body image issues is more entrenched in her writing style than perhaps she is even aware of. For the sake of outward approval and recognition of her bodily achievements, Sarah includes her height and weight next to a current picture. This is such an unhelpful and unhealthy thing to do, both for herself and for those who read this article. By doing this, she implies that her numbers are what validate her health (and indeed her self-worth), not, oh I don’t know, “My doctor says I’m much better,” or “Now I feel much better,” or “I’m glad to be able to dance without the competition.” Her health is determined by the same numbers that drove her illness. The inclusion of the picture also implies that people can tell whether or not a person has an eating disorder just by looking at them, which is not always true. She’s presenting her body to us for approval. Also, by not mentioning if a “good day” is one where she has lost or gained weight, the assumption on behalf of the reader is that “good” means “skinny.”

      I say all of this not to criticize Sarah the woman, but Sarah the writer. Of course somebody recovering from an eating disorder might struggle with these viewpoints; the reason the article is problematic is because those viewpoints are taken for granted and not directly, deeply dealt with. The way she presents her experience and her attitudes toward women’s bodies in general (“‘normal sized’ breasts” – really?) has the potential to do be used incorrectly and doen’t actually reveal too much about the life of a competitive dancer than what is already out there. There’s a way of writing about suicide without making an inadvertant how-to manual for potential copycats; it’s the same way with eating disorders.

    • http://www.google.com Evie Christopher

      I’m a lesbian

    • elizabeth

      I hope you don’t mind, but I am going to transform this story, into a book. :) “The Life Of A Ballerina.”

    • Mary

      Interesting article, but jockeys go through the same thing, they live on a diet of vodka I have heard!
      You need to have some source of protein in your diet when you are involved in sport because it builds muscle which are essential

    • Lk

      All professional dancers struggle with a body & eating disorder. I loved dancing but alway struggled with my shorter framed “gymnastic like” body. I went to a performing arts high school & was lucky enough to dance professionally until I went to college. Now in my mid 30′s I recognize it, that I too had a problem but now not, but yes mirrors are always hard because you remover what you “used” to look like but personally I love food & life more. I just like drug addiction ..becoming a professional dancer can be deathly. I had friends who were hospitalized at 14-25 weighing under 80 lbs & over 5ft. 9″ and to be fed intervsnously thru a tube in their foot!!! The shorter girls also had issue b/c they were in front on stage & had to be very thin as well. They caused permanent damage to their bodies by not eating; muscle astrophe (when the body has no more fat to burn it burns muscles -the muscles will then detach from the bone). Extreme examples would be rehersing 3-5hours a day with minimal caloric intake. Diets consist of 1/2 of a banna & tea or coffee for breakfast. salad or low carb lunch with a large bottle of water for day- same for dinner (if you ate) cigarettes or diet pill in-between to curb your appetite. Once extreme, you drank only water, chewed fat free sugarless gum, snacked on less than 1/2 of a serving of fat free pretzels with the salt scraped off(water retention), ate for lunch/dinner fat free turkey deli meat ~one slice, with shredded lettuce & lemon juice, & drank coffee black with more cigarettes or you took upper pills to keep you going.