Ballet and eating disorders: 'Unspoken competitiveness' adds pressure to be thin

Victoria Ferguson aged 17 before she began professional training Victoria Ferguson says eating disorders are more complex than just appearance and weight.

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"I started getting preoccupied with my weight and then wanting to be healthy and it triggered my obsession with food and being a certain shape."

Victoria Ferguson's experience is widespread among dancers who feel under pressure to look a certain way.

But for the 22-year-old from west London this was not a pressure that stemmed from teachers and artistic directors telling her to lose weight, it was a strain she put on herself that eventually developed into an eating disorder.

"There is an unspoken competitiveness between dancers," she said.

"Every day you are looking at your friends in tights and leotards which isn't normal, and the whole purpose of dance is to be self-critical and constantly pushing yourself, and you strive to be better. It was all self-imposed."

Start Quote

Ballet is always about aesthetic lines and unfortunately you associate this kind of thinness with beauty in the ballet world”

End Quote Rachel Parker Ex-Birmingham Royal Ballet
'Felt in control'

Victoria is one of about 1.6 million people in the UK affected by eating disorders, of which 11% are men.

And the prevalence of them in dancers, particularly ballet dancers, is said to be nearly 10 times higher than in non-dancers.

Victoria added: "Eating disorders are not just about what you look like and weigh. It is far more complex.

"Making yourself sick is not normal. I knew it was not right but I felt in control. It affected my mind and social relationships because I was being so secretive.

Patient at new Leicestershire eating disorder centre Emily Copperthwaite thinks where patients receive treatment is important for recovery

"I look back now and I feel ashamed and disgusted at how I lied to my family and friends because I was adamant they shouldn't know. If anyone approached the subject I shot them down."

Victoria, who danced from a young age, developed bulimia at 15. It got worse when she joined a professional dance school but it was not until the local GP referred her for treatment that she got the help she needed.

The link between dancing and eating disorders has been researched by many health professionals and psychiatrists.

Professor Jon Arcelus from the Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust Adult Eating Disorders Service, has looked at how personalities and the psychologically and physically pressured environment of the ballet world are linked with developing an eating disorder.

His work has also seen him helping the Royal Ballet create its own Eating Disorder Policy for staff and students.

Earlier this month the Leicester service, which is one of the biggest in the UK, moved to a new £1.2m residential centre supported by the Royal Ballet and Dance UK - further emphasising the link between dance and eating disorders.

'Environment is key'

Emily Copperthwaite, from Leicestershire, spent more than 12 weeks at the centre for treatment for anorexia.

"I have had an unhealthy mind set and relationship with food for three years," said the 19-year-old.

Rachel Parker at Atlanta Ballet aged 19 Rachel Parker says thinness is often associated with beauty in the ballet world

"The environment is key to recovery. It makes a massive difference to how you think, so to have the space and freedom is better. It doesn't feel like you are on a hospital ward.

"You can't fight the battle yourself so coming somewhere like this really gives you that kick to get rid of your disorder and get on with your life."

Rachel Parker, 43, speaks at conferences for Dance UK about dancers and eating disorders.

The ex-Birmingham Royal Ballet dancer was never medically diagnosed as having anorexia but was forced to change her diet when she was diagnosed with osteoporosis in her 20s.

"I never had any issues with my body or image when I was younger. I was always quite a small build so there was never a lot of pressure to be thin," she said.

"My problems started after a tour to Taiwan. I got very ill and lost a lot of weight so when I came back to work I was expecting concern about my appearance but instead I got praise on how amazing I looked. I felt I got more attention and I started getting more principal roles.

"I started restricting my diet to keep that body shape and I became obsessed with food. I was just eating enough to get through my training and performances, which looking back was nowhere near enough."

Rachel's condition was recognised by a doctor when she was tested for bone density and was told she had the spine of a 70-year-old caused by years of a poor diet.

Rachel Parker Rachel Parker now speaks at conferences about eating disorders among dancers

"Ballet is always about aesthetic lines and unfortunately you associate this kind of thinness with beauty in the ballet world," she added.

"There are certain types of performers and personalities that fall victim to eating disorders - the perfectionists and highly self-critical people.

"As much as you tell young dancers the dangers and risks of eating disorders many think in the moment and are not looking ahead. They have no idea what they are doing to their body and their life.

"They don't realise a couple of missed meals is dangerous, and dancers are restricting their diets to stay a certain way, it's just not normal."

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