A repost from Amelia Drummond’s blog www.adventuresofameliad.wordpress.com
“Just before I begin, I would like to recognise that what I write about here could be triggering for you if you have experienced or are experiencing disordered eating.
I recently saw an instagram post which went viral, and was all over my stories. This research wasn’t shocking for me, as I’m sure it wasn’t for many dancers, but the fact that the dancers of today are still facing these challenges proves that we need to be having more open discussions about dancer and more broadly artist and elite sports people’s mental health. And not just be speaking about it, but be actively making changes within schools, companies and industries. Seeing this research in figures and percentages made me reflect on my career as a dancer and how one year later after retiring, I am still very much feeling and observing the effects of the industry. What happens to us in school and later on in company life, the things our teachers, coaches, directors, choreographers and leaders say to us has lasting impacts both physically and mentally. Should we really be put in the position to choose performance and advancing our careers, at the cost of our mental and physical health?
I am writing about my story to bring awareness to the topic, and to bring even more awareness to the fact that someone can present to be absolutely fine on the outside, but is actually going through a world of hurt on the inside. I want people to be aware that you can consider yourself an intelligent person and still be fooled and pulled into obsessive and harmful behaviours. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that I needed more help and support, and that I didn’t have all the answers. I now feel to be in a position where I have perspective and so can share my experiences from a place of being okay and accepting. I still have days when I have to reflect on if what is going through my head is actually my voice, or voices of past teachers and influential people in my life.
At 17 I was told by my ballet school director in Germany that I was ‘too big’ and that I need to loose weight. I saw a nutritionist in Australia who got me into counting energy and kilojoules, and so began the dieting and restriction. I would calculate the amount of kilojoules of every food I was eating, spend hours at the supermarket looking over labels and would place a limit to what I could eat every day. I measured the kilojoules against my energy output and calculated them as I saw fit. Looking back at the advice from this nutritionist, I don’t think she meant it to get as out of hand as it did, but I believe that when giving this type of advice to someone with my personality or just anyone, it should be done with such a lot of caution. We should realise that any advice that is meant to be helpful, if we don’t fully understand what the person is going through, and aren’t educated enough on the topic to give professional advice, it can very often be taken out of context by the person. I was known for doing everything to the highest level and with the most dedication. If I set my mind to something, I could do it. This included trying to get through a day of intense ballet training on as little food as possible.
I was weighing all my food, and had a set meal plan for my entire week. It was boring, monotonous and incredibly restrictive. If I didn’t go to bed feeling hungry I thought that I must have eaten too much. I restricted my water intake because I thought it made me look bloated and that all the teachers would think I had put on weight. I started seeing the numbers go down and down on the scale. At one early point I got very sick with gastro after travelling, lost even more weight and was determined not to put that back on. I always felt tired, I was hungry, I was often anxious, nervous and had a very low mood. If you ask my close family, they would say that I was very sensitive and that they had to walk on egg shells around me. I obsessively weighed myself every day at the same time, and I would check to see if I could feel my hip bones and how flat my stomach was. If I was even 100 grams heavier than the day before I would panic and take something out of my diet that day.
I was socially withdrawn, and very often not only because I was shy, but because I knew that being social often meant going out to eat and enjoy and treat yourself. That was something I couldn’t imagine myself doing without the feeling of excessive guilt, a racing heart and feeling like I had put on weight the next day. I consumed sometimes up to two packets of chewing gum each day because I thought that if I could distract myself by eating something without actually eating something, that would help me to keep my weight down. On top of all that pressure, our school uniform colour for that year was a white leotard. YES, a WHITE leotard for 17-20 year olds. I lost my period and had amenorrhea for 6 years, which at the time I thought was the best thing ever, but the long term impact that has had on me has been an eye opening experience.
I was getting so much praise from teachers and my director, and even my peers. I remember once my director asked without waiting for my answer ‘Do you just feel so much better now?’. I remember that someone asked me how I lost so much weight, and how I kept it off. I felt extremely protective and defensive, like it was a secret that only I was allowed to know and a competitive advantage in some way. I was put into front lines of corps de ballet work, and I got top marks for all my assessments. In the middle of all those thoughts, I thought that I was doing well despite all the warning signs and all the depressive thoughts hanging over me. I thought that was what I needed to feel like if I wanted to make a career in dance, and that I needed to make all the sacrifices I could in order to have this career. Even though I felt exhausted and absolutely depleted of all energy, I couldn’t stop and somehow I found the motivation. I didn’t have the energy to think about anything else, and withdrew from every other aspect of my life. But everything else in my life seemed to be heading in the right direction and therefore reinforcing my controlling behaviour.
For 5 years I didn’t eat bread, unless it was under a certain kilojoule count, I didn’t eat potatoes, pasta, fruit (apparently two much sugar), I only ate chicken breast, had the lowest possible fat in yoghurt, milk and cheese, I didn’t eat nuts, only bought very small servings of ‘treat foods’ so I wouldn’t have the option to binge. I had a very unhealthy relationship to food, and even though I am out the other end of that now and have so much more knowledge and information to back myself, I still have moments where old thoughts will resurface and I drift back into old thinking, shaming and guilt.
My obsession extended beyond food and affected the way I perceived and saw my body. I was obsessed with mirrors and to this day, I can still not look head on to a mirror. Throughout my professional career I couldn’t look at myself in videos and would only compare my weight to the other dancers on stage, not considering any other factors of performance. I was extremely self conscious and often wore baggy clothes (and still do, only now more for comfort!), I constantly was in fear of having the ‘weight talk’ with my director. And there were many. I would look sideways in the mirror and be in denial either about my weight gain or weight loss. I would judge myself on how my costumes felt when I put them on; if they were tighter or looser. I felt different to the rest of the company, and my reality was constantly skewed. I would feel so uncomfortable and ashamed to be in my skin and my body that I didn’t want to go into work. I often felt like I wanted to cut parts of my skin off so I could get rid of ‘fat’. I despised my muscular shape and felt that I was too different to ever succeed.
After all my diets and promises to myself to ‘do better next week’, they eventually had a rebound effect as no part of what I was doing to my body was sustainable. I did end up putting on weight, I went into denial and refused to get on the scales. I didn’t want to know any form of reality, and I resorted to binge eating in private. If people didn’t see me eat, did I really eat? I would binge eat, and then eat one carrot for lunch the next day. I became defensive and resistant and frustrated with myself and what I was doing. I excessively exercised to ‘burn off’ everything, including all the healthy things that I ate. I forced myself to go to the gym every.single.day and do cardio because I thought that was the best way to loose weight. I felt ashamed and embarrassed when after all that work, I never looked the way I wanted to even when I was at my thinnest and most unhealthy.
In the moment when everything seemed like it was turning against me, including myself, when all my thoughts were around weight, food, what I looked like, how other people saw my body; I couldn’t see any way out and I started to hate everything about ballet and dance. I have never been more stressed, anxious and low in my life.
What I have discovered after gaining some perspective now is that I don’t hate dance and the arts. The people who pressured me to loose weight, who told me that I was too big and just plain not good enough, didn’t have any idea of what was going on and how deeply this affected me. Or they did, but had their own agendas, personal biases and traditionalist views. And it’s not just me, but I can guarantee there are thousands if not more, dancers and artists around the world who are scarily experiencing the same thoughts as me. Maybe even escalated in the current pressures of the COVID situation. To not be educated on this subject as a director, teacher, choreographer and really just anyone having any involvement in the arts, is to contribute to the problem. We need more people involved in the industry who have a passion or at least want to understand and help change the issue that can sometimes be put as just a ‘result’ of being in the performing arts. It doesn’t have to be that way, and I sincerely hope there are more high up people out there all around the world, wanting to actively contribute to this discussion.
Comments you make to young people and artists throughout their lives have impressionable impacts on their whole lives outside of their dancing careers. There is nothing wrong with you however you look right at this moment; you are beautiful. It’s the industry and culture that is wrong to make you believe and behave in disruptive and detrimental ways.
If you are thinking or experiencing any of these thoughts, at whatever stage you are in your career, PLEASE go and get professional support. Please go and speak to someone. You don’t just have to be another statistic, and you don’t have to suffer in silence. Yes, it is incredibly hard to admit you have a problem or illness, but I promise you, even harder to feel alone. Change starts with people speaking out, and realising there is a gap of knowledge and education, and organisations becoming aware of what they need to do to better to support the sustainability of artists and their careers. And you can be a part of that change.