Dear Lesley: Should I Lose Weight for Dance Class?
Dr. Lesley Williams is a certified eating disorder specialist, family medicine physician and positive body image advocate. She co-owns Liberation Center, an eating disorder treatment facility, in Phoenix, Arizona. Dr. Williams is dedicated to ensuring that all women and men that struggle with eating and body image issues receive the help that they need to overcome and live happy, healthy lives.
Dr. Williams regularly educates other healthcare professionals about the diversity and dangers of eating disorders. She has made several media appearances as an eating disorder expert and regularly speaks at national conferences. Her most recent body image advocacy project is writing the children’s book Free to Be Me. It encourages young girls and boys to love their bodies, no matter what size, and is scheduled to be released later this year.
I started going to dance class a couple of months ago. The girls at my studio have been telling me that I need to lose weight to make it into more advanced classes. Should I talk to my dance teacher about this?
The statement that your fellow students made is sad, but unfortunately it is one that I hear frequently. The thought that you have to be very thin to perform well as a dancer is a common misconception. In fact, that line of thinking is one of the reasons that dancing makes people so vulnerable to developing eating disorders. People believe that the only way to make it to the highest level is to be very thin.
The reality is that dancers who resort to drastic measures to achieve a weight that is not their natural size actually discover that the opposite is true: starving themselves for the sake of achieving an unnaturally thin body results in a loss of muscle tone and performance.
My patients who are dancers often express the struggle that they have with the sport’s focus on size and shape. Dance performers typically have to spend hours each day wearing form-fitting costumes and spending a great deal of time in rooms filled with mirrors. This invites constant critique of one’s body and comparison to their peers. Being involved in this type of environment can be challenging, even for those with a very healthy body image. That is why it is so important that you protect yourself from messages that tell you your body is not OK just the way it is.
Size and dance performance are two independent things. With time and dedication, you can become a talented dancer and excel, regardless of your weight. You are wise to question the advice of your fellow dance students and to speak with your instructor directly regarding her thoughts on the topic. If you speak with your dance instructor and she indicates that weight loss is required to move into more advanced classes, you may want to explore other dance studio options. I always recommend joining dance companies that embrace body diversity and assess students based on skill, not size.
If the instructors are sending the message that size determines whether or not you advance, the students will pick up on this and conform. Even dancers with the highest self-esteem and body confidence can be negatively impacted by spoken and unspoken messages regarding body shape and size. You are in the position to be an advocate for positive body image and I am hopeful that you will get the tips you need to love your body AND soar as a dancer. Best of luck of your dancing journey!