Today’s world is so obsessed with the idea of a “perfect body” that children as young as three years old are developing body image issues. This research is disturbing, yet unsurprising; while older generations cannot fathom being critical of their tiny, toddler bodies, today’s generation of young children is especially overwhelmed with critiques and false notions of how someone’s body should look. Children are like sponges, and what they observe in magazines, TV shows, movies, their friends, and their parents can easily encourage body dysmorphia and eating disorders at an early age. And, when your child is involved in the performing arts, they may be more susceptible to a list of body image issues as they grapple with the need to be perfect.
HOW ARE BODY IMAGE AND EATING DISORDERS DEFINED?
Body dysmorphia, in summary, is a condition in which you fixate on, imagine, or exaggerate any flaws on your body to the point where it becomes mentally debilitating. Body dysmorphia can trigger eating disorders such as anorexia (severe restriction of food intake), bulimia (eating large amounts of food, then regurgitating it), and binge eating disorder (eating large amounts of food in a short amount of time). There are several other types of similar disorders, but these tend to be the most common, especially in adolescents.
WHAT CAUSES THESE DISORDERS?
Children can struggle with eating disorders and their body image due to a list of factors. Genetics can play a role, along with the consumption of dangerous media and what children observe in the people closest to them. Children exposed to social media without supervision will inevitably see photoshopped and conveniently angled photos of someone’s “perfect body.” With these photos comes endless commentary on that person’s body. On the home front, if you talk negatively about your body in front of your child, or obsess over dieting and clothing sizes, your child will start to think it’s normal to be overly critical of their body.
If a child is involved in the performing arts, they can be especially vulnerable to an eating disorder. A dancer or an actor, for example, can obsess over their appearance because they compare themselves to others on stage with them. They may also feel an intense pressure to be thinner because of the ridiculous idea that performers need to look a certain way. This shouldn’t be the case, though, as thinness is not always a sign of peak health. Christine Perkins, the marketing and communications director and a ballet instructor at Dancers’ Workshop, comments, “I think there is a misconception that dancers have to be extremely thin, and that’s society at large, not just in the performing arts. However, there’s been a real shift in mindsets and across art forms that we need healthy dancers, not thin dancers. Thin dancers will injure easily; they’ll crash and burn and have a short career.”
Some performers are naturally thin, and that’s okay! What’s important is that these performers, (especially dancers), no matter how big or small, eat enough food to sustain themselves. “We never tell people they need to cut calories,” adds Christine. “It’s all about having a healthy approach to food. Dancers eat a lot! If you talk to a professional dancer, they’ll tell you they never stop eating. They have to eat because their muscles need to be able to strengthen and repair themselves.”
According to Renee Puyau, a registered dietitian that works with dancers at Dancers’ Workshop, a dancer’s diet “…should be adequate in energy, meaning dancers need to make sure they are eating enough calories every day to support their bodies.” It should also “…contain a variety of different foods from all the food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins, and dairy) each day.” That’s not to say they aren’t allowed to eat ice cream and pizza, too!
WHAT ARE THE WARNING SIGNS?
Eating disorders can develop in performers who are extreme perfectionists. They feel the desire to control everything in their craft, so their appearance falls in that need for control. Someone with an eating disorder may say something about food that raises a red flag, such as “this is going to make me fat” and “I can’t eat this.” They may also increase their exercise without increasing their caloric intake and refuse to eat in front of other people. Some physical red flags may be an extremely visible rib cage, thin arms and legs, and sunken temples.
A person with body dysmorphia will constantly study themselves in the mirror or avoid mirrors altogether, and they may compare themselves to other people, frequently ask if they look okay (and refuse to accept that they do, in fact, look okay), and try to hide parts of their body. They may avoid having their picture taken or somehow hide their body when they are included in a picture. They may also obsessively groom themselves, pick at their skin, and pluck out unwanted hair.
WHAT CAN ADULTS DO TO HELP?
“I think it’s best for instructors to have early communication with parents,” says Christine. “We don’t have a lot of incidents, but if we do start to suspect a dancer may have an eating disorder, first we speak to the parents.” The child can be referred to therapy and come back, or they may choose to not return to the stage because they may want to select a different activity that won’t cause their disorder to spiral again. Christine stresses that dance companies are mindful of the wellbeing of their dancers and do not encourage dieting and thinness. In fact, at Dancers’ Workshop, proper nutrition is discussed with all dancers at the beginning of the year, and weight is never discussed so that kids are not triggered into thinking their value is in the number they see on the scale.
When you talk to your child about proper nutrition, don’t emphasize weight loss as the sole benefit of eating right. Eating well does not necessarily mean staying thin; rather, it means your child is fueling their body so they can perform well. Remind your child that being healthy looks different on everybody, no matter how much bigger or smaller they are.