Dancer thinks she may have an eating disorder

Dear Alice,

I am part of the dance department at my high school, and we often have specialists come in to talk about eating disorders. When they explain the symptoms of an anorexic, they all seem to sound like me, or almost every other teenage girl. My question is, other than a person's obvious appearance of being anorexic, how can you decide for yourself if you are or not? I do obsess a lot about my weight, and go without eating for a while, but if you look at me, I look of average weight. How do I know for sure?

— Confused!

Dear Confused!,

Although your school was successful in raising your awareness of eating disorders, it seems you're still fuzzy on whether this applies to you. And that’s totally understandable! Many sports — including dance — can focus on attaining a certain "body type." However, some people are genetically predisposed to look a certain way. Others are not. Striving for an ideal that isn't realistically attainable or physiologically possible can lend itself to unhealthy eating behaviors and disordered eating. Left unchecked, disordered eating can become an eating disorder, which can seriously negatively impact your health. All of that being said, you noted that many of the behaviors described sound like you or every teenage girl. It's also true that in discussions of eating, weight, and body size, many disordered practices have become so commonplace that many people don't even realize they're disordered anymore, and in some circles, these practices may even be praised. If you find that you're concerned about your eating practices now, you may find it useful to speak with a health care provider (more on this in a bit) as they're the ones who can provide a full screening and diagnosis.

Eating disorders aren't “black and white”; at times, even the delineation between disordered and non-disordered eating can become blurred. While health care professionals use a designated set of criteria for diagnosis, the presentation of the eating disorder can vary by person — the same eating disorder in two people may appear vastly different from one another. For example, people living with anorexia nervosa can have all sorts of body shapes. Since it’s also possible to engage in disordered eating behavior but not officially meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, it’s best to meet with a health care professional to explore your relationship with food and if appropriate, to receive a formal diagnosis. Professionals who specialize in eating disorders can provide targeted support and resources which can help in getting treatment started sooner if necessary.

If you're feeling unsure about speaking to someone, a helpful first step may be the National Eating Disorders Association’s (NEDA) Online Eating Disorder Screening Tool. This tool uses a set of questions to determine your level of risk for an eating disorder and, depending on your results, links you to additional information and related resources. A parent, trusted friend, teacher, or mentor can also help you to consider next steps. Making an appointment directly with your health care provider is another option. If you don’t know your provider’s name or would like to see someone new, the professionals who spoke at your school may have recommendations of medical providers.

For additional reading on the topic, the NEDA website has an abundance of information. You might also take a look at the related Q&As and the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition & Physical Activity archives.

Here’s to dancing with a new spin on things,

Last updated Oct 14, 2022
Originally published Dec 01, 2000

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