Musings on Women and Eating Disorders

This is a little outside my normal arena for this blog. However, having 18 years of dance training and experience under belt, you can bet your ass I've known a few women with various types of eating disorders.

I bring this up because a feminist blogger wrote a mea culpa to her readers about having an eating disorder while trying to espouse feminist ideals. You can read it HERE. The conversation turned towards the norm: it's a mental health and body image issue.

We all know it's a mental condition, born of a multitude of conditions. However, I think our conversation focuses too much on the small snippet of female mentality (let's face it, eating disorders affect women vastly more than men) that adheres to body image.

I'm going to make the argument that, yes, it's a multifaceted disease, but I believe a focus on empowerment will go a lot further than a focus on good body image.

First, I'd like to discuss the situations of people I know who have battled an eating disorder. In very general terms, of course. Most of them were dancers, but not all of them. So yes, they were subjected to the same pressures as most women, that thinness is perfection, and arguable even to a greater degree by being a dancer whose image is thrown at the audience in lycra.

But not all of these people I knew were dancers.

All of these people I knew had some aspect of their lives that made them feel out of control. Some had medical conditions that made life difficult or, at best, complicated. Many had overbearing mothers or parents fawning over their schooling, performances. The types of parents that teachers, instructors and coaches do not want to deal with.

That is the underlying similarity I see. A feeling of being out of control, which alone will knock someone's self esteem down more than a few pegs. Add in the body image issues that most of us women have to deal with, and it's a perfect storm where the mind is grasping for control of SOMETHING and here is what it can do. It can diet. That's the one thing no one can force them to do or not to do.

And wether it's anorexia, bulimia, or diet/ binging cycles, it belongs to them.

Let's take a second perspective where I'll compare my experiences among women in dance and women in martial arts.

As one can probably predict, you really don't see eating disorders among women in martial arts at anywhere near the same rate that you see it in the dance world. Is it because we have top notch body esteem? No, trust me, we bitch and moan about our thighs and that weird place on our back that fat never seems to leave.

And, hell, it's a weight class sport. We're constantly stepping on scales to determine where we stand as we approach competition. I've had nearly daily weight check-ins with sensei when I competed, while a dance instructor never once asked me what my scale weight was.

I think the main difference is that in martial arts, women are shown how they can be forces of nature, how they can control themselves, and even have (hopefully benevolent) power over others. They're empowered.

Dance, on the other hand, is all about image. The grace you put on stage, entertaining others. In a way it is service oriented in that ultimately, a job done well or poorly is how moved your audience is. The empowering nature of being able do to things no one else can be potentially washed out by the "it's about the ensemble" or "it's all about the audience" mentality.

Where I'm going with all of this: I truly believe that to protect women against eating disorders, they need to be taught a sense of empowerment and control over their situations from an early age. Being taught to feel helpless or controlled sets in young, and once that seed is planted, it is very hard to remove.

Now… how to do this is something else entirely and a topic for a completely different article.