Per the Oxford Dictionary, identity is referred to as how one describes the ‘self’ and the characteristics that further defines us as people. A dancer’s identity can be best explained by the social identity theory, as the theory focuses on the ways individuals perceive and categorise themselves, based upon their social and personal identities (Jacobson, 2003). There are many worldwide perceptions on what it means to be a dancer, as well as how they should look and while dance can be an embodiment of one’s free expression, it can also be a categorization of one’s gender, size, age, sexuality etc. For example, many men in dance struggle to be accepted due to the multiple reflections on “society’s acceptance and rejection of different expressions of femininity and masculinity” (Yamanashi & Bulman, 2009).
Identity as a ballet dancer is punctured with commitment, self-sacrifice, physical and emotional pain and suffering as suggested by Pickard (2002). Certain genres of dance such as ballet, pole and jazz are subject to sexualization due to the nature of the costumes they are expected to wear. For many women in dance, wearing a beautifully decorated costume and stepping out on to a stage can be empowering, the “beauty of the female body is manifested to express eroticism, which is culminated by body exposure, body consciousness, use of illuminating or see-through material or colourful trimming” (Mi-Young, 2006). Furthermore, when considering the concept of identity within dance, Langdon and Petracca (2010) discovered how dancers can be associated with obsessive body image and warned professionals in the industry to be aware of the negative aspects of identity and to encourage positive body perception when working alongside dancers, as they can be at risk of developing an eating disorder (ED).
The Objectification Theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) claims that women are often sexually objectified in some cultures which results in state self-objectification and trait self-objectification. From this, Tiggemann and Slater (2001) found that classical ballet students scored higher on self-objectification, self-surveillance and disordered eating, when compared to psychology students.
As differences in clothing can be seen within different styles of dance, the prevalence of EDs can differ too. Anshel (2004) found that ballet dancers were more at risk of developing EDs as they are concerned about how much they weigh, leading to body dissatisfaction and perfectionism. This is because there is a huge pressure for dancers to perform well as well as looking the part, can lead to further self-surveillance and to achieve this, weight control is a focus of theirs. For example, the desire of having the ideal body is seen in ballet schools where dancers are overconcerned about their performance and so focus on details such as weight, hair and teeth to reach the ‘artistic look’ (Ravaldi et al., 2016).
A young female dancer comments on how she ties her identity to dance “I view my body in a really toxic light. I think if I wasn’t a creative and I didn’t have this type of pressure to look good all the time, I would certainly still have insecurities but not to the extent I do now. I see the women getting booked for jobs, I see the briefs for castings, but I don’t see people like me, size 12, chubby etc. So I have actually gone on a fitness journey to change that and mould into the person I feel like I ‘need’ to be, which is another thing that I need to unlearn. I don’t need to change for no one – especially not for an industry or society norms, I should change for me.”
This demonstrates the awareness of how aesthetics can really influence identity and personal consequences. However, it is important to note that not every dancer will have an ED, but they are at more risk due to the type of sport it is, the industry being female-dominant and perfectionism (Trigg, 1978). Alternative research as found that some dancers actually have a positive self-esteem, great fitness benefits and encouraged healthy eating (Kalliopuska, 1989; Tiggemann & Zaccardo, 2015).
The role of a psychotherapist is becoming more and more relevant to the world of not only the sport of Dance, but many other sports. If you would like to learn more about how you could one day work within sport as a psychotherapist, a psychological wellbeing officer, or would simply like to learn more about how they work, Click here to be taken to the Introduction to Sports Psychotherapy – Online Course. Or Click here to be taken to the Certificate in Psychological Wellbeing in Sports.
There are many ways in which practitioners can treat individuals with EDs and to help restore a sense of self and identity. For example, a clinical psychologist may use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as a way of challenging an individual’s thought patterns and encourage cognitive restructuring, to relieve the pressure of perfectionistic traits and low self-esteem (Murphy et al., 2010). Within CBT, particularly Enhanced CBT, there is a focus on changes to behaviour to change the way in which the individual thinks, as opposed to just cognitive restructuring. Firstly, discussions and plans are put in place to prepare the individual for the treatment and whether they are motivated to engage in this.
Therefore, it is crucial to identify any factors that may discourage an individual to fully engage with the treatment. During this stage it is important that the individual feels empowered and in control of the situation as they may feel more involved and hopeful. Self-awareness is also highlighted, so behaviours and thinking patterns are identified. Next, establishing regular eating is considered through planning meals and snacks. After this, identifying significant others who can play apart in helping the individual to recover and highlighting the mechanisms of the onset of the ED. To specifically tackle the perfectionistic traits, the therapist would collaboratively work with the individual to focus on non-performance and other domains of life that are more important.
Alternatively, a psychotherapist may use interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) where there is an emphasis on interpersonal dysfunctions, whether that’s communication and/or relationships with significant others (McIntosh et al., 2010). The goal is to improve interpersonal functionality and so issues are explored deeper as things such as interpersonal problems and self-doubts may be presented which are shadowed by the preoccupation of weight and eating. Whilst there is limited research on dancers specifically, this implies that dancers may face a lot of self-doubt within the industry and so they cope through eating – though this needs to be further researched. When delivering IPT, there is constant review of the links between the symptoms of the ED and the interpersonal issue. From this the individual and therapist discuss how the cope with the issue at hand healthily. Therefore, within therapy links will be made between the interpersonal issues and the EDs which will be explored during sessions.
Within this article, issues of identity and EDs were highlighted and how different psychologists and psychotherapists may tackle this. However, there are many different ways in which practitioners can approach this, as there are many other frameworks developed from different philosophies and theories.
By Manisha Aggarwal
LinkedIn – Manisha Aggarwal
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