• Why Dancers Lose Their Period

    Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a nutritionist. I am currently working towards my master’s degree in nutrition, and this information is based on a research project I did for one of my classes. This information is not meant to provide any diagnosis or treatment advice. Please speak with your health professionals to address any health concerns you may have. This blog post is based on a research project I just completed for grad school. I am currently studying nutrition to become a Certified Nutrition Specialist.

    Let’s clear the air about why dancers lose their period. Periods are not taboo, in fact, this is a topic we should be openly talking about. It is a part of educating dancers on the signs that our period gives us. You may be wondering why you lose your period while dancing, or if a period is really necessary as a dancer. Periods are inconvenient and often accompany not so fun symptoms, so let’s talk about why having a normal period is actually extremely important for dancer health. 

    First, what is amenorrhea?

    To put out a few definitions, amenorrhea is the absence of menstruation in individuals of reproductive age. Amenorrhea can occur alongside other disorders like PCOS, but the type of amenorrhea we are talking about today is what is known as hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA) or functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (FHA). HA occurs solely due to the effects of prolonged psychological and physical stress. This could mean caloric restriction, over-exercising, unmanaged stress, or a combination of these factors (1). HA can occur in individuals who have not yet had their period, or in individuals who have had their period but who have not had their cycle for several consecutive months. 

    To put it simply, when our body is undergoing chronic stress, is not receiving enough energy, or is using too much energy, our body diverts its resources away from our reproductive system and towards the systems that keep our body alive (2). With this comes hormonal changes that can affect other aspects of our health. 

    How does this relate to dancers?

    This is where we talk about specifically why dancers lose their period. Dancers and athletes are especially susceptible to HA because of the long hours of intense training, pressure to fit a certain size, and the sometimes high stress environment of dance companies and studies. Not every menstruating dancer will develop HA, but there is research showing that certain factors and personality traits that are often seen in individuals with HA. Attitudes of perfectionism, control, and rigidity as well as concerns over the thoughts of others make it harder for one to deal with stres (2,3). Stress from casting, rehearsing, and auditioning during pivotal years of a dancer’s training can influence a dancer’s ability to cope with stress and can negatively influence eating and exercise behaviors.  

    Dancers with HA have a higher likelihood of also dealing with disordered eating and disordered attitudes towards food and body image (1,4) This can lead to restrained eating behaviors and increased engagement in extracurricular exercise to achieve thinness. It is estimated that as many as 47% of female athletes with leaner body types have disordered eating, and the number of dancers could be even higher (4). 

    Why should dancers be concerned about their lack of period?

    Estrogen is a hormone that has many functions, but it importantly influences our bone health and is vital to our reproductive health. The majority of estrogen is produced by our ovaries during our menstrual cycle. Estrogen helps our bodies to maintain bone mass and bone strength. There is a correlation between individuals with HA and low bone mineral density, stress fractures, and an inability to achieve peak bone mass (1,4). This is especially important for dancers, because it can influence a dancer’s injury rate, recovery period, as well as can lead to issues such as osteoporosis in the future. Prolonged amenorrhea has also been linked to an increased prevalence of psychological disorders like depression and anxiety, infertility issues, and cardiovascular issues (1,4). Amenorrhea should be taken very seriously by dancers, parents of dance students, teachers, and directors. 

    What should you do if you don’t have your period?

    First, speak to your doctor, whether OB GYN or primary care doctor about amenorrhea. If you have a nutritionist or counselor that you are working with, they are also great to notify about what you are going through. Resolving HA is often best done with a team of individuals who can help you address your nutrition needs, stressors, and other behavioral and lifestyle factors that may be contributing to HA. Medical professionals are usually well versed as to why dancers lose their period. a

    Second, change your mindset surrounding what a dancer’s body should be. HA can occur when dancers feel pressured to take on behaviors that drastically change their body composition in a way that negatively impacts their body. This is something that I experienced as well! It took me years for me to see that my natural body is a dancer body because it allows me to have the energy and strength to undergo long hours of classes and rehearsals. There are definitely going to be more posts on how we can start to change our body image in ballet. But for now, check out this post

    Third, make sure you are eating enough for your needs as a dancer! I cannot stress this enough. Our bodies need fuel in order to do the things that dance requires us and it needs the fuel to make sure our body can function optimally. Chronic undereating can lead to amenorrhea as our body is trying to save as much energy as it can. This also means eating a wide variety of foods filled with proteins, carbohydrates, and fat. For dancers, it is important to eat every 3-4 hours to make sure you are intaking enough energy for what you are expending. If you want to learn more about fueling your body, look here

    Lastly, find ways that help you to handle stress. I am someone who is especially sensitive to stress, and so this one has probably been the hardest one for me to tackle. It is easy for my stress levels to get out of hand and the compounding effects can make me lose my period for a month or two. I have found it important to find ways that help me to better manage my stress. For me, going to therapy, taking baths, giving myself regular breaks from dance and work, and cutting back exercise when needed are all tools that I use regularly. What will help you cope with stress may look totally different, so explore as to what works best for you. 

    I hope this post gave you some more information about HA and why dancers lose their period. If you want more information, I am linking all of my sources down below, and always be sure to talk to your medical team about what is best for you! 

    References
    1. Gordon, C. M., Ackerman, K. E., Berga, S. L., Kaplan, J. R., Mastorakos, G., Misra, M., Murad, M. H., Santoro, N. F., & Warren, M. P. (2017). Functional hypothalamic amenorrhea: an endocrine society clinical practice guideline. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 102(5), 1413-1439. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2017-00131
    2. Roberts, R. E., Farahani, L., Webber, L., & Jayasena, C. (2020). Current understanding of hypothalamic amenorrhoea. Therapeutic Advances in Endocrinology and Metabolism, 11, 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1177/2042018820945854
    3. Morrison, A. E., Fleming, S., & Levy M. J. (2020). A review of the pathophysiology of functional hypothalamic amenorrhoea in women subject to psychological stress, disordered eating, excessive exercise or a combination of these factors. Clinical Endocrinology. https://doi.org/10.1111/cen.14399
    4. Huhmann, K. (2020). Menses requires energy: A review of how disordered eating, excessive exercise, and high stress lead to menstrual irregularities. Clinical Therapeutics, 42(3), 401-407. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clinthera.2020.01.016
  • Nutrition and Body Image in Dance

    photo by Dave Burguess at Studio 616 Photo

    Dance is not a stagnant art form. It is continuously moving and breathing. It utilizes the form and athleticism of the human body to create a story and invoke emotion in the viewer. With every movement, every ballet class, and every performance, dancers are continually working to mold and shape their bodies to perfection. But at what cost? We lose the importance of nutrition and body image in dance. 

    Since dance is a visual art form based on physical ability, dancers are ultimately judged based on the technique and artistry that is displayed through their body. This has led to a culture filled with self criticism, disordered eating, and mental health disorders in dance communities. Whether consciously or unconsciously, dancers try to change the size and shape of their body through sometimes unhealthy measures to fit the desires of their teachers and directors to achieve the “ballet body”. 

    This negative messaging that dancers receive about nutrition and body image in dance can foster an unhealthy relationship with their body and poor relationship with food at best. At worst, it can induce health complications like eating disorders, injuries, and clinical anxiety and depression. This shifts the focus away from the health and well-being of the dancer and makes way for elitism, abuse, and dancer burn-out. Instead, we should make dance not only an avenue for arts and entertainment, but also a healthy and enriching place to teach dancers about body-awareness, self-care, exploration, nutrition, and so much more

    So, how do we change the narrative surrounding nutrition and body image in dance? 

    Let go of the false narrative that only some bodies can participate in dance. Any body can find joy in movement, whether it is a ballet class or other dance discipline. Period. When we drop the “ballet body” as a requirement to be a dancer, dance becomes enriched by the unique talents that every dancer can bring to the table. It also allows dancers to focus on the craft and artistry of dance and not feelings of self-doubt that they will never be enough because of their body. 

    Make dancer health a priority. Dance companies and schools need to stop harmful practices like requiring weight on a resume, weighing or measuring dancers, casting based on size, and commenting on a dancer’s body to invoke body shame. Speaking from personal experience, when I was in an environment that encouraged a rigid schedule, food control, and extraneous “training” outside of the studio, I was unhealthy, unhappy, and uninspired. My negative self-esteem and poor relationship with food took years of unlearning before I was really able to grasp my true ability as a dancer. 

    Bring in professionals who can educate and help dancers. We all have our limits and blind spots, which is why it is so important to have a network of medical and nutritional professionals who can impart their knowledge and expertise on dancer health and wellness. Medical doctors, physical therapists, nutritionists, and counselors who understand the unique struggles that dancers face can help dancers to care for their bodies inside and outside of the studio and foster a healthy body image and relationship with food. 

    Make the studio a safe space. There are many changes that happen to a dancer’s body, like puberty or an injury, that may make the dancer feel uncomfortable or not as in tune with their body. It is normal for bodies to fluctuate, grow, and change. In fact, this is an absolutely normal process! Several ways we can help dancers through these changes is by allowing dancers to have personal expression in their dancewear, helping dancers to focus on aspects of dance like artistry and musicality, cultivativating a body positive atmosphere in the studio, and encouraging the representation of different body types in the organization. 

    Encourage a well-rounded, non-restrictive approach to nutrition. Dancers need energy in order to sustain a heavy dance load, build muscle, and recover. A dancer’s body also needs nutrients to be able to amass bone strength, aid in muscle recovery, and keep the body’s many functions up and running. Often, balanced approaches to nutrition are not modeled in dance, which can encourage restrictive and disordered eating. Instead, promoting principles like individuality, listening to hunger cues and cravings, letting go of food rules, and having fun with food can help to encourage a healthy relationship with food. Fuel for dancers can exist in a way that highlights the importance of all macronutrients, emphasizes nutrient dense foods, and also makes space for play foods that are simply there for enjoyment. 

    Overall, redefining what it means to be a healthy dancer takes time. For so long, dance culture has put so much emphasis on size and appearance that it has taken dancers away from being able to listen to their bodies. There is an opportunity to hold dancer health above aesthetics to not only prolong the career of dancers and decrease injuries but also to help dancers be their healthiest and most confident selves. It starts with showing that strong and healthy dancers can prioritize a healthy body image and relationship with food without diet culture. 

     

  • Body Image of a Dancer – What Needs to Change

    Ballet and body image go hand in hand. Whether we recognize it or not, the body image of a dancer is created in the studio. Combine this with body image issues seen in friends, family, and media can create a storm of deeply connected issues that stifle body confidence. 

    When I discuss intuitive eating and creating a healthy body image, I am always asked, “but what about the high caliber of body that is needed for dancers?”. Basically, this is a nice way of trying to put “well, wait, aren’t these ideas going to encourage dancers to not be fit and lean?”. Our brains are taught to think of cross training and nutrition in terms of body size and shape. It perpetuates this idea that strict dieting and excessive exercise are the only ways to become a top ballerina. Being a “healthy” dancer does not mean physically, mentally and emotionally strong and happy, but purely how you look in a leotard and tights and how rigid and strict you can be with yourself. So, how did we get here?

    Acknowledging privilege 

    Before we talk more about the body image of a dancer, I want to acknowledge that I am mostly able to speak on my own experience as a dancer. But I have body privilege in that I naturally hold a lean shape, I am white, and I do not have any underlying physical impingements that keep me from pursuing highly competitive and demanding physical activity. There are so many issues that many dancers of color face that I have never had to go through. I have also always had access to physical and mental health professionals who have been able to help me on my journey. 

    This blog post is not going to be able to capture the experience of every single dancer, which is why I want to keep this conversation going. On my YouTube channel, I am planning on having perspectives of other dancers whose journeys were different than mine. Each dancer is going to have a different experience when it comes to the scars they carry from dance, but what we do have in common is this feeling of frustration, doubt, and self-questioning in our ability and in our bodies. I hope that there is also a unifying understanding that how we approach nutrition and body image in dance needs to change. 

    What is body image

    Body image is the perception that a person has of their physical self. It encompasses the thoughts and feelings they experience as a result of that perception. This is the way you SEE yourself, the way you FEEL about the way you look, the THOUGHTS and BELIEFS you hold about your body, and the things you DO in relation to all of these things. 

    Body image in ballet

    The body image of a dancer is so intertwined with messaging inside and outside of the studio because ballet is a visual art form that uses the human body as the expression of art. It perfectly combines movement, athleticism, culture, emotion, and beauty. This also means that we judge dance based on what we see – which are the dancer’s bodies. Our bodies accomplish so many superhuman feats in dance, but where we can get sidetracked is in assuming that for us to present our art in the best possible way, that we have to take on a certain standard of physical attributes. 

    We are often taught outright or through subtle messaging that we have to do everything in our power to look like a stereotypical dancer. Many of these attributes are up to genetics, like degree of hip rotation, arched feet, and long limbs, which can only be changed to a slight degree. As a result, weight is often spotlighted as the one thing that dancers can and should control. It is much harder to change your physical structure and joint mobility than it is to get smaller, so it is easier and faster to change size. Unfortunately, this often comes with disordered eating patterns, habits of over-exercising, and a poor relationship with food and with your body. When dancers try to control and manipulate their body, it is often against their overall health and well-being. 

    Success in ballet

    What is often not taught to dancers is that a certain body type does not have to be equated with success in ballet. In actuality, when you are watching a dancer, their beauty is not given off by the size of their body, but by their QUALITY of movement. Epaulement, emotion, movement quality, and joy all combine to create the beautiful art of dance. Watching a stick thin but stiff ballerina does not bring the same enjoyment. 

    We give perfect bodies way too much credit – that they are the only ones capable of being beautiful dancers. But often, this is how the body image of a dancer is formed. Artistry is what captivates an audience and tells the story or evokes emotion. Yes, having the perfect body with crazy extension, insane hyperextension and a curved arch can make pretty lines, but if there is nothing beyond that, it is kind of lacking.

    Take the classical ballet Sleeping Beauty. Technically, Aurora is probably one of the hardest leads for a female in any full length classical ballet. Watching a ballerina with a stereotypical ballet body and pristine technique might be beautiful to look at, but it is not memorable. It doesn’t teach or tell anything. You can enjoy it visually, but it might not necessarily be engaging beyond that. Think instead about a dancer who embodies Aurora as a youthful, giving, loving lead. The dancer might be playing with the music in an interesting way, or genuinely connect with the others on the stage in a way that really tells the story. This is what we actually want to watch as dancers and as audience goers. This is what dancing is about. 

    How we negatively cope with poor body image

    Unfortunately, we can get so caught up in what we see in the mirror and in pictures. This is often because we see casting changes, company contracts and attention from dancers and teachers equated to being thin. Many dancers receive compliments from directors, teachers, and peers alike when getting leaner, which gives us positive affirmation to continue on this potentially dangerous tightrope. We are also surrounded by this culture of perfection in dance that perpetuates this “need” to always be in your “best shape”. Often, this is only achieved with unhealthy habits.

    Especially when we are younger, many dancers deal with our bodies changing by talking negatively about our own bodies around other dancers. I think some of it can be the need to be complimented when we feel insecure, but some of it stems from this place of feeling like we aren’t allowed to accept our bodies as they are. In spite of the fact that our bodies are going to constantly be growing, changing, and fluctuating. 

    This really hits home for me when I hear nine and ten year-olds talk negatively about their body size and shape. I will hear them talk about how bad their body looks in a leotard and how they won’t be liked by teachers or cast in the Nutcracker because of this. THEY ARE STILL KIDS! Unfortunately, this degrading language can continue throughout their lifetime, past the studio, and into their adult years as well. 

    A bit of my story

    I once thought that I had to stay a certain size in order to be a good dancer. In fact, I felt like I was only praised in my ability to keep a ballet body and not my actual dancing, and so I was stuck in feeling like I had to look a certain way. The only way I felt confident in my dancing was to be thin. I not only didn’t enjoy dancing anymore, I was constantly tired, injured, and full of anxiety. 

    I didn’t realize this until I stopped caring so much about having a super flat stomach and started to just think about how much I really did love dancing. Instead, I stopped thinking about how my body looked in a snapshot, but how my dancing would translate. This doesn’t mean that I never struggle with having days where my body image is so-so, but I have the tools now to work through these negative thoughts before they become thought patterns that turn into old habits. 

    Responsibility of the ballet industry

    Whether you are a seasoned professional, or you take dance classes recreationally, the way we are taught about our bodies in dance can be carried with us throughout our lives. I think it is the responsibility of directors, choreographers, teachers, and even dance parents to teach their dancers how to develop a healthy relationship with food and with their body. This is such an important issue that can impact a dancer’s physical, mental, and emotional health for decades. 

    Change can begin when we have spaces where we can start talking openly about how to develop a healthy body image within arts organizations. It will start with shifting the mindsets of dancers as well as shifting the practices and ideals that teachers and artistic staff hold in regards to a dancer’s body. For real change to occur, body image needs to be addressed as every level of a dance organization. 

    Trust me, it’s worth it

    When looking at uprooting negative body image in the dance world, it can be daunting to try and conceptualize change. But trust me, it’s going to be worth it. So many dancers are becoming passionate about creating spaces dedicated to supporting healthy dancers.

    My hope is that the more we talk about unhealthy standards in dance, the more we can begin to change them and make dance a better, safer, and more constructive place for dancers to develop into strong, independent, and well rounded, healthy individuals. In future posts, I will be talking about my personal body image journey as well as tangible steps that dancers can take to develop a healthy relationship with their body. 

    If you have any questions in regards to body image, you can reach out to me here. Also, please check out my video on this subject here.