On August 12, 2001, NBC aired the network movie Dying to Dance. Character Alyssa Lennox starved herself to “improve” her body alignment for the purpose of satisfying requirements for the Metropolitan Dance Company. Alyssa weighed 104 pounds at the start of her career. She weighed a drastic and dangerous 84 pounds at the end of 3 months. Alyssa was abusing herbal pills, laxatives, and came near to purchasing the drug “Speed” to keep herself awake. Alyssa was hospitalized because she suddenly fainted due to overexertion. Alyssa recovered from her illness, but many not are so lucky. The illnesses that I speak of are called eating disorders. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are two of the many illnesses that occur among young dancers and other sports such as gymnastics. Many of these young women develop these disorders because they are being pressured by their coaches or judges to be perfect.
Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which the person has a fear of becoming obese and refuses to maintain a healthy minimal body weight. It usually begins in adolescence, occasionally earlier, and less commonly in adulthood. Anorexia nervosa in particular affects the middle and upper class. About 95 percent of the people who suffer from this disorder are females. Many women who develop anorexia nervosa are perfectionists and have compulsive tendencies such as fixing the edges of a rug to make sure it lies perfect. The number of people who have this disorder seems to be increasing in the Western society (Merck Manual 415).
Anorexia actually means, “lack of appetite (Merck Manual 415). However, people with anorexia are tremendously hungry and their lives revolve around food. This may include calorie counting, collecting recipes, wasting food, as well as preparing lavish meals that they will by no means consume.
The first signs of anorexia nervosa are an increased concern with diet and weight. As thinner as an anorectic becomes the more, he or she feels overweight and the anxiety about weight intensifies. Even when emaciated, the person claims to feel overweight, denies that anything is wrong, and does not complain about their lack of appetite or weight loss.
Women stop having their menstrual cycle because there are reduced levels of estrogen. There is a loss of interest in sex in both men and women. The body will accumulate fluid, this is also known as edema, due to the fact that the body is undernourished. There is a significant amount of hair loss with conjunction to an excessive amount of body and facial hair. This is the way the body keeps itself warm because there is no fat to keep in warmth.
If a person becomes severely malnourished, his or her major organs can malfunction. Electrolytes (potassium, sodium, and chloride) are necessary to run the major organs. The organ most affected is the heart. The heart will get weaker and pump less blood through the body. The blood can become acidic which is known as metabolic acidosis. Thus burning through the veins and arteries found throughout the body and major organs.
Anorexia nervosa ranges from a mild and short phase to a long and severe phase. Death rates as high as 10 to 20 percent have been reported (Merck Manual 415).
Unfortunately, mild cases are not reported so it is not certain how many people actually suffer from this disease.
Bulimia nervosa is a disorder in which the person has numerous episodes of bingeing and purging. As with people with anorexia, bulimic are very concerned with weight and dieting. Compared with anorectics, individuals with bulimia nervosa tend to be more aware of their behavior and feel culpable and repentant for their actions. They are more likely to admit that they have a problem.
Bingeing and purging are definite signs of bulimia. Bingeing is the consumption of large amounts of food. Bingeing must occur at least twice a week in order to be considered bulimic and it usually happens in secret. Purging is the regurgitation of the consumed food from a binge. Methods of purging differ from person to person. As stated by the “Barbi Twins” in an interview with E, one would consume at one point 100 laxatives while the other stuck her fingers in her throat to induce vomiting.
A bulimic as well as an anorectic abuse diuretics (water pills), laxatives, and enemas to rid the body of food from a binge (Merck Manual 416). Diuretics will eventually severely dehydrate one’s body if abused. Laxatives will slowly eat away at the colon. Bulimics are known for taking large amounts of Ipecac to induce vomiting. Ipecac was created to induce vomiting when poisonous chemicals were accidentally imbibed. Self-induced vomiting can erode tooth enamel and the esophagus. A person may excessively exercise in order to counteract the effects of a binge.
Bulimia nervosa is easier to treat than anorexia nervosa due to the fact that a bulimic can admit they have a problem. Bingeing and purging are the way a bulimic suppresses and releases his or her troubles. Psychotherapy is generally the best treatment. An anti-depressant is usually prescribed to control bulimia nervosa (Merck Manual 416-417).
Anorexia nervosa is treated in two ways. One is to restore a normal body weight and the other is by means of psychotherapy. An anorectic can lose about fifteen percent, but more severe cases can lose twenty-five. When weight loss is that life-threatening, restoring normal body weight is exceedingly critical. Experienced personnel firmly but gently convince the patient to eat. Hardly ever, do doctors intravenously feed the patient or pass a tube into the stomach directly. Once the patient’s health status is acceptable, psychotherapy begins. This can include individual, group, and family psychotherapy (Merck Manual 416). However, this can be much more difficult for an anorexic because he or she deny profusely that there is a problem.
Dancers run on a schedule much like a job at a major company, but dancers go unrewarded for the extra time put in. Dancers on normal begin their day at 7:00am. The dancer will generally practice for an hour before they tackle a day at school. These young ladies will then return to the studio to dance to eight in the evening. They will then make their way home to stay up to midnight to finish homework. Thus, repeat the whole cycle the next day.
Psychologist Julia Buckroyd, from the University of Hershide, held a study, which interviewed and polled 400 dancers. At the conclusion of her study, Buckroyd concluded that 200 dancers were anorexic. More than half of the dancers interviewed put across symptoms of either anorexia or bulimia, and in some cases exhibiting symptoms of both illnesses. This study presents the argument that dancers are indirectly pressured to take any approach necessary to obtain the ideal body image set by their instructors. This was the case for 22-year old Heidi Guenther.
According to Jeffrey Gantz, “I must have seen Heidi Guenther perform with Boston Ballet on a number of occasions. I wish I could say I remember her. That’s often the lot of ballet dancers who are corps members: even the critics scarcely notice you. It’s why those dancers are so eager to graduate from the corps and become soloists and principals (1).” Most ballet companies hold auditions to choose new soloists and principals. This status is very beneficial to a dancer. Becoming a soloist not only brings great prestige to the dancer’s career, but also entitles them to an increase in pay. This also opens more opportunities for recruitment to more prominent companies.
It was Heidi’s dream to become the soloist or the principal and she did everything a professional dancer would do to achieve the status of principal. Often, this includes practice into the early hours of morning without food or drink. This is the most common cause of overexertion.
Bursitis is the inflammation of the bursa which is a flat sac containing synovial fluid that facilitates the normal movement of some joints and muscles and reduces friction (Merck Manual 251). Bursas are located in places where tendons or muscles pass over the bone. Dancers, who use their lower body 80 percent of the time, develop bursitis in commonly afflicted areas such as the hips, pelvis, knees, and toes.
Tendinitis is the inflammation of a tendon. Tendons are fibrous cords of tough tissue that connects muscles to bones. This illness usually affects older people, but can also affect younger people who exercise vigorously and in people who perform repetitive tasks much like dancers. This can make the slightest dance movement severely painful. However, a dancer will continue to dance through the pain sometimes causing the bleeding of their feet.
Heidi Guenther was one of these dancers who push her body to the limit. On June 30,1997 anorexia nervosa claimed the life of the Boston Ballet Company dancer. “While spending the summer with her mother, Patti Harrington, in San Francisco, Guenther collapsed and died” as stated by Jeffrey Gantz. Ballet companies have a warped notion on how the body of a female dancer should look like.
According to the National Eating Disorders Agency (NEDA), an average woman in America is 5’4” and 140 pounds. At the time of her death, Guenther was 5’3” and weighed a dangerous 100 pounds. That suggests that for a 22-year old woman Guenther was underweight by a least 20 pounds:
“According to company balletmistress Dierdre Myles, back when Guenther was 18, she, “like many girls that age,” began to gain weight… at the end of the season, Guenther was told she should lose about five pounds. When she returned to Boston Ballet, at the end of the summer, she was, Myles recalls, “just right.” And what weight was just right? Myles estimates, “110 pounds (Gantz).”
NEDA states, “that an average woman weighs 140 pounds.” Therefore, it is correct to say that the Boston Ballet felt that Guenther was not ideal if they asked her to lose weight.
A dance company sets strict standards for their dancers. In the film Dying to Dance, character Alyssa Lennox was told by her ballet maestro and the company to lose at least five pounds. Alyssa almost killed herself. However, for Heidi Guenther, death was prevalent. According to Gantz:
“Ballet in general, and Boston Ballet in particular, is likely to be under a dark cloud for some time to come. For many companies, a woman can’t be too light or too thin: just a few weeks ago, former dancer Lea Thompson (Caroline in the City) told TV Guide how American Ballet Theatre had advised her that at 5’5” and 96 pounds she was “too stocky” to be considered for ABT. Questions are now being asked about what ballet companies demand of their female members, and what steps they take to protect their dancers’ health.”
Sandra Alma held a conference in regards to promoting health for ballet dancers. She states that four percent of ballet dancers are suffering from eating disorders, anorexia nervosa being the most common of the illnesses. She suggests that companies should monitor the dancers weight by having weigh-ins. However, dancers find means of embellishing their weight the day of weigh-ins. For example, a dancer will wear extra stockings, double leotards, stuff a little weight between their legs, and placing quarters in their hair. This is done so that she can appear heavier than she really is.
“According to the Globe, Guenther “had complained in recent weeks that her heart felt like it was racing, that she could feel it pounding heavily in her chest (Gantz).” Eating disorders are contributed to heart failure because the heart muscles become weaker from the lack of food and/or starvation. However, the companies blames Heidi’s death on hereditary heart failure in her family.
Heidi Guenther is just one of the many unfortunate girls who die of these illnesses everyday. Heidi Guenther paid a high price for her dream. Many others like Christine Henrich, a member of the United States gymnastics team in 1992, died because someone told her she was not “good enough.” It is my hope that this paper educates those in the dangers of eating disorders, so that maybe lives can be saved instead of being lost.