Performance Enhancing Dieting
My senior year of college, I dated a former dancer… I’ll call her Chloe. She had been big into the dance scene during middle and high school before knee injuries curtailed her dreams. This was a world that was largely unfamiliar to me despite my older sister having been a dancer for much of her life. As our relationship progressed and I learned that her relationship with dance was not unlike my relationship with sports. So it was with great empathy that I came to understand her feeling of loss at a dream deferred. But it was also with disgust that I came to view dance culture as I heard her share her stories. She told tales of intense skin infections cause by shaving her armpits raw to attain that flawless, hairless look and of the intense pressure to make weight by any means necessary, which usually meant becoming either anorexic, bulimic, or both.
But what boggled my mind is that while I was reviled by these stories, Chloe reminisced about them. In fact, she even went so far as to express frustration that her mother hadn’t pushed her more, hadn’t been once of those “dance moms”, and hadn’t aided her unhealthy relationship with food, weight, and body image. If only she had, Chloe argued, maybe she’d still be dancing today.
The impacts of growing up in this world were not reduced to stories and unrealized dreams. Throughout our relationship, Chloe struggled with her weight and her body image, sometimes veering back into the unhealthy habits of her youth. And let me make clear when I say that Chloe’s “struggles” with her weight were based on her unrealistic expectations, largely informed by the dance world. At her heaviest, she probably carried between 135 and 145 pounds on her 5’6″ frame; normally, she probably hovered between 125 and 135. But this wasn’t good enough, and she often pushed to get down below 115. This took a toll on our relationship, in part because she defended her behavior and insisted I simply didn’t understand what it meant to be a dancer. Pointing out that she was no longer a dancer was not helpful.
I bring this up because I thought of it while listening to a recent discussion on performance enhancing drugs in sports. One of the participants took the position that even if we accepted PEDs for professionals, we had to consider what the trickle down effect was on younger players in the college and high school ranks. That as young athletes watch their heroes bulk up, they’d feel pressured to do so and the impacts of these substances on young bodies could be quite different than on adult bodies. This is all compounded by the fact that the vast, vast majority of high school and college athletes will never earn a dollar playing their sport, thus making the risks of these drugs assumed in vain.
As I listened to this conversation, which was heading towards a resolution of not only banning PEDs in sports, but also making them illegal without a prescription, I wondered if we should likewise make anorexia and bulimia illegal and should seek to scrub dancing, gymnastics, and other forms of entertainment which pressure young performers (almost always women) into such unhealthy behaviors. Surely we all agree that such conditions are highly damaging to those who suffer from them, yes? And surely we all agree that young women, particularly high school aged girls who will never dance professionally, should not feel pressured into such an unhealthy lifestyle? So why aren’t we or why won’t we have a similar conversation here?
This is not meant to disparage the women (and men, who I do know exist but in much smaller number) who suffer from images with body image, weight, body dysmorphia, and other related struggles. I recognize that most women find themselves taking part in such behaviors because of intense societal pressure, magnified when under the microscope of certain performing arts. I would love nothing more than to reshape the world in such a way that an unhealthy and largely unattainable body image is not held up as the ideal for women.
But the fact remains is that we are having one national conversation about PEDs in sports, which includes congressional hearings and federal charges being pursued, and seemingly complete silence about an equally (if not more) damaging trend in another realm of entertainment in the service of yet more elite performances. So if the recognition that PEDs pose a threat to the users and the potential users, including youth athletes, means we should seek to ban them and accept lower scores in baseball and smaller offensive linemen in football, why doesn’t the knowledge that anorexia, bulimia, and other unhealthy relationships with food and body image plague the dance world lead to a similarly impassioned charge to cease them, with the fans of this art accepting slightly fuller-figured performers?
To make clear, I am not actually advocating that we criminalize anorexia and bulimia. Jailing the folks who suffer from it is not going to serve their long-term best interests. I also don’t think we should criminalize PEDs. I tend to espouse a theory that folks, especially adults, should be free to do with their bodies what they like. But I also believe that individual industries can set reasonable terms of engagement within those industries. If MLB wants a game clean of PEDs, such is their right. Similarly, if a dance troupe wants performers who are of healthy mind and body, banning unhealthy habits also seems well within its rights. So, really, what I’m calling for is not a ban on all things unhealthy; rather, I’m wondering why we seem to view one unhealthy behavior in the pursuit of performance excellence worthy of a national conversation and another unhealthy behavior in the pursuit of performance excellence unworthy of seemingly any conversation at all?