Getty Images

Help! I Think My Friend Has an Eating Disorder

Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet, says one of the most common questions she's asked is, "What should I do if I think my friend has an eating disorder?" Research shows that, compared to the general population, dancers are three times more likely to suffer from eating disorders. Experts agree that early detection and treatment is crucial. Unfortunately, while adults—like teachers and studio directors—should be keeping an eye out for warning signs, the people most likely to first notice a dancer's issues with food are her friends at the barre.

So what do you do if you suspect a friend is suffering? You don't want to be accusatory, but you know eating disorders are cause for great concern. At the very least, Kaslow advises you to trust your instincts and do something, whether it's confronting your friend directly or speaking to an adult. "If you're worried about someone, you should take it seriously," she says. "You can't be a bystander—the longer somebody waits to get an eating disorder under control, the harder it is."


Signs a friend may be suffering

"There are many signs that a friend may be struggling with an eating disorder," says Nancy Linden, who works with The Emily Program—a nationally recognized eating disorder awareness and treatment program. "However, due to the secretive nature of many eating disorders, they can be tough to spot." You may notice a friend's dramatic weight gain or loss, says Linden, or that she's frequently commenting on her body or food. Excessive exercise can be another sign, as well as physical symptoms like bruising, dry skin, and brittle hair.

Kaslow adds that your friend may not eat at times when others do, or may refuse to eat in front of people. "Sometimes people with eating disorders won't want to change in the dressing room and will retreat to the bathroom instead," she says. She adds that a dancer suffering from an eating disorder may deflect their issues onto someone else and become fixated on how thin other people are. "Sometimes they'll be the ones making brownies and bringing them in," she says. "They'll make treats for others, but will make a point not to eat them."

Confronting your friend

Kaslow says it's best that you talk with your friend before speaking to anyone else. While it'll be a difficult conversation, and your friend may deny having an issue, she deserves to hear from you directly before you tell someone else. "Don't be critical," she says, adding that you should make a lot of "I" statements: I'm worried about you. I've noticed these specific behaviors and it makes me scared. And most importantly, How can I help you?

Kaslow says that she's also seen a group of dancers approach a friend together, but says that whether or not that is appropriate is determined by the dynamic of a particular situation. "I do think it's important to talk to others about your concerns," she says, "not in a gossipy way, but in a genuinely caring and kind way."

If you're feeling nervous, remember that it's most crucial not to be a bystander. Emily Cook Harrison, a dietitian and founder of Nutrition for Great Performance, says that the body has many natural, biological checks and balances to keep it alive and active when in a state of energy restriction during an eating disorder. "The longer this goes on, the worse the potential damage can be to the body," she cautions. "Energy deficits sustained regularly over time will increase a dancer's risk for injury—both fatigue-type injuries and stress fractures."

Call the Emily Program at 866-247-6440 if you don't feel like you have anyone to talk to and need advice on how to get help. (Getty Images)

Tell an adult

Once you've spoken with your friend, continue to monitor the situation. Even if your friend insists that nothing is wrong, if you're still worried, you must involve an adult. "Go to someone you think will be kind about it," says Kaslow. She encourages students to reach out to a teacher or someone at the school if there is a caring and safe person to talk to. Marjorie Grundvig, co-director of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, says that students shouldn't feel afraid to talk to their teachers. "A teacher will be able to discuss appropriate steps for the dancer who may be struggling," she says. "Teachers want the best for their students, and their health always comes first."

In some cases you may feel most comfortable talking to your own parents first. Kaslow says that it may be easiest to ask your mom or dad to talk to your friend's parents, if they know each other. She also encourages dancers to ask their school to bring in professionals—nutritionists and/or mental health professionals—if they see food issues are a problem. "When someone has an eating issue, it can be contagious," Kaslow says.

It's important to know that your friend may be upset and even angry when you step in to try to help them. That's a natural response, and it doesn't mean your friendship is over. Ultimately, it's too important that she receive help to allow your own doubt to get in the way. "The truth is that eating issues are very common and sometimes dancers don't know if it's really serious," she says. "It's not really your job to figure out where that line is as a student. If you're worried about someone, that's enough. It's an adult's job to figure out what to do about it."


A version of this story appeared in the March 2019 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Help! I Think My Friend Has an Eating Disorder."

Latest Posts


Because there's never been a better time to binge-watch "Bunheads" (via Freeform)

5 of the Danciest TV Shows Streaming Right Now (and Where to Stream Them)

We're about two months into #SocialDisDancing, and let's be real—while we all wish we were spending every spare minute stretching, cross-training, or taking online classes, sometimes we just need to Netflix and chill.

We figure, if you're going to be watching TV anyways, why not make it dancy TV? After all, watching pros dance on-screen is basically dance class homework...or at least we'll say it is. Here are five of the danciest TV shows for you to watch—and where to find them.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Larry Saperstein on "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" (Disney+/Fred Hayes)

Celebrate National Tap Dance Day with "HSM" Star Larry Saperstein

Happy National Tap Dance Day, friends! We're marking the occasion by catching up with one of our favorite talented young tappers: Larry Saperstein. The "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" star began taking tap classes at 12 years old, studying at the American Tap Dance Foundation, where he quickly discovered his love for the art. These days, he's putting his skills to good use as Big Red on "HSMTMTS." (Who could forget that iconic moment at the end of season one where he broke out into a tap routine that shook us all!)

We chatted with Larry about why he loves tap so much, and why the art form needs more and better representation in the dance world (and the world world).

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

2020 Dance Grads: We Want to Put You on Our Cover!

Hello, all you members of the great Dance Class of 2020. With the world on lockdown, this hasn't been the graduation season you expected. You likely weren't able to go to prom; your commencement ceremonies have probably been delayed or canceled; and you might not have been able to take your planned-for final bow onstage.

Since you're missing out on so much, we'd like to give you a virtual ovation, to recognize all you've accomplished. And what's the highest honor we can bestow? The cover of Dance Spirit!

Here's the plan:

  • If you're a high school or college senior dancer, use this form to submit your information and dance portrait.
  • Each day during the month of May, we'll create a digital Dance Spirit cover starring one of you, chosen at random—31 covers in total.
  • At the end of the month, we'll create a "commencement video" featuring even more of your submitted dance photos.
  • 100 of you, selected by lottery, will also receive free one-year subscriptions to the print magazine.

Merde, 2020 graduates, as you dance your way into the future!

High School and College Senior Dancers: Submit Your Photo Here

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search