Transcript of my interview with Amy of Dancing With Ed, on May 11, 2022.
This is about one of my experiences with diet culture in the theatre – this was community theatre! Trigger warning: Diet talk.
Q. What made you want to do a Share My Story interview?
A. I want to tell a story that I don’t think has really been told before. The story I am going to be
telling today is not only about being a performer who has struggled and recovered from their own ED, but an ED professional and dietitian getting stuck in diet culture during a show. I don’t think that story has really been told. There aren’t very many dietitians within this type of industry that are still performing. Also, even when you know better, even when you’re doing really well, diet culture is still so pervasive that we can kind of get pulled in even when we don’t go all the way. I think it is important to say that this is a thing and that we are still susceptible to the temptation of diet culture and wanting to fit in.
Q. When did you start dancing?
A. I started dancing when I was three. My mom had been a dancer, not professionally but for fun, from her twenties on, so she wanted to make sure that I got into dance. When I was around ten she had enough knee issues that she wasn’t able to keep going anymore, but for a few years we were able to dance at the same studio. She was the helper in my class, so it was something that we got to bond over. Up until I was 13 I did tap, jazz, ballet, and lyrical, just the combo classes. Around the time I was 12/13, I was feeling ready to move on, so I took a couple years off. I was really into horses, so my whole physical activity shifted to horses. When I was 16, I was really missing dance, but I was never going to be a big bun-head type. I didn’t really want to go back to ballet. My studio was offering beginning hip hop and breakdancing. I tried that for about three months. It was not a good look for me. It was fun but ended very quickly. Then, my studio started offering ballroom classes, and that is the thing that really stuck with me. I got into ballroom. I’ve got to say, I think my first love was east-coast swing. That was the first type of dance that I really got into, especially going into high school and college. I was doing swing, ballroom, latin, and salsa. Through college, I was doing all of the social dances. I started the swing dance club, and my dance partner and I basically taught anyone that would show up. We did lots of lifts and aerials which were my specialty throughout college. This was also when I was in the midst of my ED. When I moved onto my next college, I did competitive lindy hop there and worked my way up into being the president of the salsa dance club. Moving from a small school to a large school really became part of my identity as a dancer. Being in that large school of about 60,000 students and working my way up through the club made me feel like people really truly knew me as a dancer and that was pivotal for me. When I moved to California, I knew to look for the salsa club at the university there (Cal Poly) where I could find other people to dance with.
I got married and started really getting into work so I wasn’t able to dance as much as I wanted to. Eventually my schedule opened up more and I was able to start auditioning for shows. Musical theater was really my thing. I loved the flashy tap numbers. So I got into my first show out here in 2014. This is the show I will mostly be talking about. This got me back into studio dance and even ballet classes, which I hadn’t been in for almost 16 years.
Q. Was it in your teen years when you started struggling with disordered eating?
A. I would say highschool was when I started being more aware of body image. My childhood
through middle school, I wasn’t really a popular kid by any means but I really didn’t think about my body at all. That was never a part of it for me. I know I didn’t dress like the cool kids, so that was more of an insecurity for me. For me it started more in highschool, especially my senior year and then carried into college. My first two years of college were probably the peak of my ED, which never got officially diagnosed, but was definitely a restrictive disorder. I would call it an unspecified ED (OSFED), heading towards anorexia, was what I was struggling with.
Q. Did dance challenge the body image and ED? Did it help? How did those two interact? (TW: mentions over exercise and calorie burning)
A. I don’t think dance challenged it. I don’t think my ED came from dance or being in the mirror, or other things that you would typically see with dancers. It was definitely more the comments from peers and a control issue that stemmed from the unknown of college. Dance definitely contributed as an over-exercise piece for me. At the peak of it, I remember I was dancing almost everyday. I wasn’t like an exercise person. I didn’t get into exercise or start going to the gym until the end of college and I actually became a personal trainer because of that mindset. I was definitely trying to “burn” calories. I was rehearsing a lot without fueling my body enough. After we would go out swing dancing, sometimes we would go out to a restaurant like Applebee’s, and people would order appetizers and full meals while I would get a salad or nothing. It was that kind of thing. It wasn’t that dance was the cause of it. It was more my means to restrict. Now that I work with more ED clients, I realize that I wasn’t restricting as a lot of people do. I was still getting the minimum amount that I was making sure I ate. It was not technically enough but it was more than I see a lot of people doing, but I was definitely trying to exercise it away through dance.
Q. Were you aware of it at the time that you weren’t giving yourself what you needed?
A. Probably on a subconscious level, but I wasn’t letting myself get there. When I was at the peak of my restriction, I was in my second year of college. I hadn’t yet switched to my nutrition major, but I was starting to get more of an awareness of that. The reason I actually became a nutrition major was actually because of this disordered obsession with food. I was reading all of the diet articles in women’s magazines, I was reading all of the labels on nutrition facts, I was educating myself but not knowing what I was actually shooting for. So it kind of became that game of, I was tracking all of my calories, I was tracking my weight, but I didn’t know what my goals were. I wasn’t aiming for a certain number of calories or anything like that, it was more of a weird learning process? I don’t know. I just became obsessed with learning about it which then led me to become a nutrition major. Then fast forward, being a nutrition major was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to me. Which is not always the case for people. I have a lot of nutrition students as clients now. For me, I believe so strongly in science that when the facts kept getting driven into me such as: you need this many calories to survive, your body does this with food, this is how your metabolism works, this is why these different nutrients interact and do these positive things, when you are exercising this much you need to eat this much, sugar is not evil.. All the things I was learning from a scientific standpoint was probably a major major part of my recovery. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for a lot of people that I see. The ED brain tends to push a lot of logic out the window. Maybe I wasn’t far gone enough for that to happen. I think I was really lucky. I had a lot of good social support and stuff like that which really helped. When I was deep in it, I didn’t really know what I was doing and I didn’t really have a set goal in mind. It was more just, don’t be the person that you think people will make fun of.
Q. Regarding underlying stressors, you mentioned how when you moved to California, you wanted to fit in and make friends and be part of something. So you were able to audition and get into this show. Tell us what happened from there.
A. I’m not going to mention the name of the town or the show, because I want to protect them. I don’t think what happened was anyone’s fault. It is more of a generic story, it has nothing to do with the theater company. They probably have no idea that any of this happened backstage. So when I was auditioning, it was the second show I had auditioned for, and I hadn’t really done a musical since high school. It had been eight years since I had been in a show. At that time when I was in high school I had no confidence in myself, which was probably a big reason why I hadn’t done shows in that long. The low self-esteem was probably a large part of the ED starting then as well. So for me getting into this show with a big dance role, especially after not being in studio dance for a long long time, I was both shocked and like ‘sweet, yeah I’m good! Everyone wants me!’ It was a great feeling. It boosted my confidence. And despite what I am about to talk about, I had a really great experience with the show. It was exactly what I had needed to restart a lot of passions of my life. It got me back into dance, theater, and voice lessons. I don’t know what I would be doing today if I hadn’t gotten into this show. So I am so grateful for the experience and the friends that I met.
As I begin to tell the story, I want to share the parts that are more relevant to your channel. I want to get the message across that EDs are also prevalent in spaces like musical theater, just as much as in other kinds of dance styles. We know that it is really prominent in ballet which is true, but EDs are also very prevalent in all other kinds of performing arts. I want to talk about how that falls through in musical theater and community theater.
It was a very dance heavy show. I was swinging for three of the leads. Meaning I was kind of like an understudy for a few parts. We have to learn all of the material for the people that we are swinging for. I was in all of the ensemble numbers and I also learned how to swing for the lead roles. I was dancing a lot. Our weekend rehearsals were like eight hours. I got in really good shape, and I was fueling myself through this. The whole rehearsal process was great. There was nothing red-flaggy throughout the rehearsal process. We were snacking and having a good time. We had a pretty good run. We had about five shows per weekend or so. I want to say we did about 28 performances. We started getting into dress rehearsals and stuff. We had really good costume fitters who made the costumes fit us really well. They were pretty tight but I felt pretty good in them. I’m trying to figure out how this happened. It wasn’t apparent that there were disordered behaviors going on. It was more the older women in the company were talking about wanting to feel their best in the costumes. Some of them proceeded to get a FaceBook group together to start working out and losing weight as a team. I am not sure why I ended up being a part of this. There were about three of four of us in total out of the very large cast along with a few others outside the cast who joined. It was like a six or eight week program that we started during tech week and it continued a little bit after the show. I totally got pulled in. I didn’t think I needed to lose weight even. It was more like I thought the diet was a healthier more inclusive program. In hindsight, I think I really wanted to make more friends and fit in, and this was a way to do that—especially with this older dancer that I really looked up to.
So at this time I was a Registered Dietitian. I knew diets didn’t work. I didn’t even have a poor mindset about my body image at the time. But there was definitely still the presence of diet culture in the rehearsal space that wasn’t overt. It didn’t come from a director telling us that we needed to lose weight, it wasn’t shaming, it was very subtle—and I still joined in.
Q. Most of the time, diet culture is very subtle. It’s the messages that it puts out that are very sneaky. It makes you believe that it is going to help you be your best self and add to your life in positive ways. But from my experience of being a “professional dieter” in my past, it always backfires. It always ended up destroying my self esteem. What I was looking for in connection, I in turn felt more isolated. So, when did you realize and decide, I don’t want to do this anymore?
A. I would say about four or five weeks into the program. At this point, I wasn’t weighing myself, I knew that wasn’t a good thing for me. I just wanted to look good in my costume and life. It started getting harder and I was working a job where I would bring food into my office. I started to feel awkward about the foods that I was bringing. Like, I’m working as a dietitian and all I’m bringing for lunch is a protein shake and a banana?! It felt kinda awkward and I didn’t want people seeing that. At home it is easier to just do what I needed to do to follow the program, but around people it felt shameful. So I started cheating on the diet and switching things around to appear more normal. It just wasn’t working for me.
Q. This sounds similar to the way we tend to form ED habits around other people to appear normal. Did this experience trigger you in any way or bring back feelings from when you struggled previously?
A. This far out, it is difficult to remember what went through my brain at that time. It was 2014 haha and now it is 2022.
Q. That totally makes sense. Maybe it’ll be easier to answer this. What was an inner strength that you accessed that helped you step back away from diet culture this time around?
A. I think it was probably two fold. One was my education background of “I had just been through all of this.” Also at this time, I hadn’t done therapy for this genre of struggle yet. That was to come later, but behaviorally I was doing well, even though there was still the mindset of the ED that was still present—which I think is why I was susceptible to this. Again, I had been well nourished at this point. I had been eating very well and I knew the science of it. So at this point the science was in the back of my head telling me that this diet wasn’t serving me well. I ended up writing about it in the FaceBook page saying that the diet went too far, encouraging others if they wanted to, to join me in a different way of eating which was closer to what our bodies needed. I was trying to help pull others out of the diet mindset as well as a way to listen to what I knew was best for myself while still trying to be a part of the group. Eventually I just had to leave because it was hard to do both. There was too much diet chatter that I couldn’t stand. I honestly don’t know where that personal strength came from because if it had been a few years prior, I would’ve really gotten stuck in it. Part of me was strong enough to pull myself out of it before the consequences snowballed. I think the other piece that helped immensely that a lot of other people don’t have, is that I started working with ED recovery patients at work which showed me glimpses of what I had gone through and what I could potentially go through if I didn’t change what I was doing. Every day I was preaching about body confidence and how to eat enough to fuel your body without restriction. And when I say those things, that is what I truly believe. I am not acting. Over the years, not just in this instance, when I talk to people about their life and how amazing they are and how their bodies deserve the best nutrition, it impacts my own perception of my body image. The more I say it to other people with full belief, the more I begin to believe it for myself.
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