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From Background to Foreground: "What Am I Going to Eat Tonight?"

By Anne Wennerstrand, CSW, DTR

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J. from Boulder, Colorado writes: "I think I am fairly versed on nutrition and good eating habits. However, I notice that about once a week or more I have an uncontrollable urge to see how much I can eat. It starts with feeling hungry and then turns into a contest with myself to see how much I can ingest. The amount is usually equal to about four meals worth of food in one sitting. I don't purge afterwards but will often try and skip a few meals the next day. I feel that if I could understand why I do this, I might be able to stop."

Dancers must negotiate a relationship with food in the same way that they negotiate relationships with significant others in their life. Like relationships with people, the way one relates to food can be affirming, nurturing, sustaining and sensually gratifying. Or it can be depriving, traumatizing, abusive, and even life-threatening. Eating problems run the full spectrum: from depriving the self of food (anorexia), to eating without regard to the body's physiological cues for hunger and satiation (compulsive overeating), to preoccupation with purging what has been ingested (bulimia). When eating has gone awry it represents a complex response to psychological, interpersonal and cultural experience. The dance world and the larger society's injunctions about what it means to have the "right" body and be on the "right" diet join and become a part of emotional life. Particularly difficult for women, eating problems are rapidly becoming more prevalent among men. This is complicated by the fact that dancers, both men and women, are burdened with contradictory messages and aesthetic imperatives about food and the body.

Dancers attempt to regulate their relationship with food in many ways. Early in a dancer's career, if there is not an innate or reliable way to soothe difficult feelings, they may begin to judge "a good or bad day" solely on the ability to deprive or permit themselves food. Further, distorted eating and body experiences are culturally normalized (i.e., "You look great, did you lose weight?") Everyday body/self and eating experiences contain and reveal the language of our inner life and the narrative is scripted in the context of the dance field and the consumer culture which values youth, thinness and beauty.

Dancers need a relationship with food that sustains life and supplies them with nutrition and energy to function maximally as dance artists. They may have chosen to value a body shape and size which fits in with established aesthetic norms. Food needs to be a sensual, life-affirming presence in our lives. So why do dancers so often have difficulty feeding themselves in appropriate and life-giving ways?

Let's think about J., who is well-versed in nutrition and good eating. How is it that, once a week or more, she goes home and starts out responding to her physiological hunger through appropriate choice of food *but* winds up ignoring her body signals for satiation or fullness?

I am thinking about another dancer who reported that her binges had nothing to do with physiological hunger but were responses to intense, out-of-control feelings that she could experience at any time of the day but were particularly acute when she was alone with herself at night. This dancer punished herself by "yelling" at herself ("I'm such a pig, a loser, fat, lazy ..."), calling herself names and exacerbating the out-of-control feeling after binge. She would try to punish herself for the binge by skipping subsequent meals, depriving herself of food and increasing her exercise activities beyond her daily dance class. She had even begun to think about using laxatives or inducing vomiting. She began to instill food with a magical power over herself. Her whole emotional life got collapsed into the symptoms she experienced with food. Gradually, she would come to feel so resentful and deprived again that she would set herself up for the next binge without any regard to physiological hunger. Furthermore, she was perplexed and greatly ashamed of this behavior. Through work in therapy, the dancer was able to examine the "out-of-control" feeling and identify what set off or "triggered" the binge.

This dancer started to make the connection that her use of food was an attempt to take care of or soothe her anxiety about her career choices (see Advice to Grown Up Dancers, 11-30, "When are You Going to Get a Real Job?"). Underneath this were concerns about "not being good enough" and anger towards teachers, choreographers and presenters whom she perceived as denying her access to what she wanted. This was completely out of her conscious awareness. She began to see that many things could trigger the binge. It could be a thought, a feeling, a memory, a look in the mirror, a glance or comment from someone. A trigger could also be a specific achievement she had accomplished. She realized through treatment that she was terrified of other dancers' envy. Somehow it felt scary to actually have what other dancers were working so hard to get. She feared this would affect her friendships with other female dancers. This dancer learned how to feel good about her accomplishments, take care of her emotional life better and know and respond to her physical cues of hunger and satiation with nutritious food choices. Gradually food problems slipped into the background and she began to place her self-esteem, relationships, creativity and commitment to a larger artistic vision in the foreground.

Eating problems are personal and complex. What I can write here only begins to address the issue. Dancers with food problems need to develop compassion and respect towards themselves, seeing the food behavior as an attempt to deal with difficult relationships and feelings. If you are an individual struggling with an eating problem, check out www.edreferral.com for further information and to help locate treatment in your area. (Thanks to my colleagues and mentors from the Women's Therapy Centre in New York City who inspire me in this conceptualization of eating problems.) I invite your questions and concerns. Write to me at anne@danceinsider.com.

"The real voyage consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." -- Marcel Proust


Anne Wennerstrand has a private psychotherapy practice in New York City and is available for individual, group and organizational consultation.

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