Though candid conversations about eating disorders are (thankfully) becoming more common in the dance world, one struggle continues to plague dancers at an alarming rate: Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). In an industry centered on physical appearance, BDD—more commonly known as body dysmorphia—can sometimes feel hard to avoid. But there's hope, and help, for those in need.
What Is Body Dysmorphic Disorder?
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, BDD is defined as "an obsession with an imaginary defect in physical appearance or an extreme concern with a slight physical blemish, which other individuals may not even recognize." As opposed to more general body image issues, BDD is characterized by a fixation on a specific part (or parts) of the body.
Body dysmorphia may manifest in different ways depending on the individual, but many, many dancers suffer from some version of it. In fact, a study conducted in 2012 found that BDD is more prevalent in dancers than the general population.
Why Are Dancers Specifically at Risk?
Josh Spell, a former dancer and a mental health consultant for Pacific Northwest Ballet, isn't surprised by those research findings. "This standard of the thin body as a dance ideal has been passed down from generation to generation," he says. "It's definitely the Balanchine model, those long legs."
Dancers spend hours every day scrutinizing their bodies in the mirror. Tights, leotards, and revealing costumes only increase the likelihood of fixation on "imperfect" body parts. The competitive spirit of the industry can exacerbate the situation, leaving dancers of all shapes and sizes—as BDD can affect everyone, regardless of weight—feeling like they'll never measure up.
How Can BDD Be Treated?
"With body dysmorphia, it's not something that you can take a magic pill for and it goes away," says choreographer, actor, and singer KayCee Stroh, known for playing Martha Cox in the High School Musical trilogy. "From a very early age, I remember looking in the mirror and then at the girls next to me and realizing, 'Oh, wow, they're all like knees and elbows and really gangling. Is that normal? Is that what I'm supposed to be?' "
As she continued to pursue dance, Stroh's battle with body dysmorphia worsened, as did her struggles with anorexia and bulimia. She became obsessive, constantly worrying about specific body features or trying to change them, whether through extreme dieting or exercise. It took Stroh many years to be able to identify what exactly she was battling.
Ultimately, for Stroh, the key to healing was therapy. And that's true for many dancers dealing with BDD. "Mental health professionals are trained in recognizing these maladaptive thoughts or negative thoughts," Spell says. "This is just part of your overall wellness. Just like we go to physical therapy, we can go to mental therapy. I want that to be normalized."
KayCee Stroh dancing today (Xan Craven, courtesy Stroh)
What Should You Do If You're Struggling?
The path to recovering from BDD might not be linear. But if you're suffering, here are some first steps to take.
First, find a trusted confidant, whether that's a dance teacher, a parent, or a mental health professional. Having someone to talk to is crucial to a healthy and lasting recovery. With their help, begin to recognize and examine your negative thoughts, identifying potential triggers and perspectives that need to be adjusted.
Stroh suggests clearing your social media feeds of anything that makes you feel negative about your body—unfollowing the dancers, models, and/or clothing brands you find triggering. Make sure your dance teachers know what you're going through, too, so they can potentially adjust the way they give feedback in class.
"As a teacher, I am striving to use language that is focusing on function rather than aesthetic," says Courtney Liu, a former dancer and current MFA student at Duke University studying ballet education, body image, and eating disorders. "So instead of talking about a certain body part—like the stomach or thighs—I talk about the function behind the lifting up off the legs, or the function behind engaging the stomach."
It might also be helpful to choose a spot in the studio farther away from the mirror, or even to train without the mirror when possible. Doing so will make it harder to fixate on specific body parts. "The mirror lies," Liu says. "The mirror is a two-dimensional object, but we are three-dimensional beings."