Pole Dancing and Eating Disorders
What is known about the rate of eating disorders in the recreational pole dance community?
The truth is, we don’t know much.
I have a personal and professional investment in this question. As a dancer I’m a newcomer – just two years into my “pole journey”. I have more experience in eating disorders. For the past 16 years I have practiced as a psychotherapist, specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. Currently, the information about the intersection of pole dancers and eating disorders is scant. But we should know more because the pole community is exploding in popularity, and it is a meaningful community worthy of study. Information about the health of our community can help us preserve and promote its strengths, identify and address its problems, and protect our more vulnerable members.
Eating disorders are still fairly uncommon in the general population with lifetime rates of .9% to 3.5% in women, lower for men (Hudson, Hiripi, Pope, Jr. & Kessler, 2007). Dancers experience a much higher rate of eating disorders than non-dancers. It is estimated that 12% of all dancers and 16.4% of ballet dancers will meet the criteria for an eating disorder (Arcelus, Whitcomb & Mitchell, 2014). This is not due to any one or two factors, but a matrix of genetics, personality type, early experiences and the culture of the dance community. For sure, dancing doesn’t give anyone an eating disorder – instead it’s the perfect storm of many variables. But dance culture is one of those variables.
I think the pole dance community is distinct from other dance communities. We are new wave feminists and counter culture activists. We focus less on ideal body shape or size, and are encouraged to find personal interpretations of movement over precision and perfection. Being a woman is messy, gritty and juicy – and pole dancers play with those realities like no other dancers can. But still, pole dancers are not exempt from the pressures faced by other dancers, especially as they become more highly skilled and competitive. Dancer’s bodies look more homogenous as they train more strenuously and their tricks become perfected. It seems too, that some studios emphasize precision and form over exploratory, sensual movement. So when it comes to culture we are different….and similar… to other dance communities.
Back to my original question – What do we know about pole dancers and eating disorders? I am currently conducting a study (click here if you would like to participate) to understand more about pole dancers concerns regarding eating, weight and shape. The data I collect will tell us something about overall attitudes and behaviors that may be indicative of, or protective against, eating disorders. If we are struggling as much or more than other dancers or community samples, we need to understand where our vulnerabilities are and think about how to do better. If we are doing well, we can be proud of that, and work to protect it. Of course, no one study tells us anything definitively, but this data will contribute to the growing body of knowledge about the recreational pole dance community.
There are no studies to date specifically about eating disorders in the pole community, but there are a few related studies. Research by Pelizzer, Tigeman and Clark found that pole dancers scored higher on embodiment (“…a strong awareness of and a sense of connectedness with their bodies..”) and positive body image, (“..the extent to which individuals appreciate, respect, accept and protect their bodies..”), than non dancers and they go on to suggest that “the sexually expressive component…may be beneficial for women’s body image” (2015). Feminist scholars interested in the mainstreaming of pole dancing as a recreational activity found that women experienced dancing as a way to, “actively resist dominant patriarchal notions of feminine sexuality” while still asking us to consider if it reinforces social oppression of women as erotic objects (Whitehead and Kurtz, 2009).
We can’t pin down the development of an eating disorder to any one thing, and there is no one type of person who has an eating disorder. All of my patients are so unique. But I can guarantee one commonality in all my patients – the inhibition of desire. An eating disorder is about the dampening and dysregulation of desire. A woman with an eating disorder puts her desires to live fully, authentically and sensually in a rigid box so that she and those around her are protected from her potential. Treatment involves understanding how all that desire got displaced into elaborate food and exercise rituals. We have a saying eating disorder treatment community, “Beware of the woman who has recovered from an eating disorder!” She is a woman who can truly think about, and tolerate, the grey areas of desire, shame, power, sexuality, hate and love.
But before recovery comes much hard work. Identifying the problem is not always easy. Eating disorders exist on a spectrum, and most of the patients I see in my office don’t fit into the traditional diagnostic categories for bulimia, anorexia or binge eating. Yet they suffer terribly and often silently. People who look relatively healthy, and have rather healthy bodies can be ravaged with body loathing, feel driven to perfection and struggle to manage their feelings. Thankfully, I don’t hear or see a great deal of body dissatisfaction at my dance studio, but when I do, I’m reminded of the secrecy and shame involved with an eating disorder…and the need for all of us to stay curious about how we think about and treat our bodies.
I can admit that poling is not for every woman. But as a therapist and a dancer, I believe poling is brimming with potential for women. We are dancing, we are being creative, we are getting fit and strong, we connecting with our sensual side, we are connecting with other women. Most importantly, I believe, we are in an environment where it’s okay to have desire, and to play with that desire in a safe space. It’s okay to want to be seen, to want to see others, to feel sexy, to be hungry, so to speak. I think these qualities make poling a unique form of dance, with a unique impact on a woman’s relationship with her body. I don’t know what all of this means about the rate of eating disorders in the recreational pole dance community, but I’m going to find out. And I’ll let you know what I find.
James I. Hudson, Eva Hiripi, Harrison G. Pope, Jr., and Ronald C. Kessler. (2007). The Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication: Biol Psychiatry, 61(3), 348–358.
Jon Arcelus, Gemma L. Witcomb, and Alex Mitchell. (2014). Prevalence of Eating Disorders amongst Dancers: A Systemic Review and Meta-Analysis: European Eating Disorders Review, 22 (2), 92-101.
Mia Pellizzer, Marika Tiggemann and Levina Clark. (2016). Enjoyment of Sexualisation and Positive Body Image in Recreational Pole Dancers and University Students: Sex Roles, 74, 35-45.
Kally Whitehead and Tim Kurz. (2009).`Empowerment’ and the Pole: A Discursive Investigation of the Reinvention of Pole Dancing as a Recreational Activity: Feminism Psychology, 19 (2) 224-244.