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Fearing recovery as a male dancer: Jonny's story

At my lowest, I was stuck in this horrible pattern of restricting food and then binging food. The exercise I was doing wasn’t ‘working’. I wasn’t fuelling myself properly so I hardly had energy to achieve my fitness goals. I was just turning up. Then the low moods gradually made me want to stay in bed, so I wasn’t even doing that.

I spiralled downwards. I was feeling unhappy and thought, ‘tomorrow, I’ll get help’. But then I just stopped feeling altogether. I felt isolated and hopeless. I convinced myself that life was too hard, that I was ‘faulty’ and born as someone who couldn’t cope. I believed no-one would care if I disappeared and ‘disappearing’ became a kind of fuzzy plan for how I’d escape from my disordered relationship with food.

Food is everywhere. Because we need it. The reason we have the energy to do all the things that make life interesting is because we eat enough to get through each day. That doesn’t stop it from feeling like a pain to have to think about. Yearly events mean Easter eggs, birthday cakes, Halloween candy, Valentines chocolate, Christmas feasts. When you try and get away from food and decide to go out for the day, it can so quickly become – ‘where shall I eat?’. Let’s go and watch a film can turn to ‘popcorn or Pick 'n' Mix?’. Let’s have a catch up = ‘shall we go for a coffee?’. All sitting in between ‘what shall I have for breakfast, what shall I have for lunch, what shall I have for dinner?’.

I started to convince myself that every morsel I ate had to be used or burnt off. I lost control and stopped listening to how full or hungry my body was. I only cared about what my body looked like but, even when I was restricting food to my lowest calorie intake and over-exercising, I never achieved the goals I wanted. I just got injured. I lost a lot of friends. I feel I lost a bit of my childhood. I feel as though I took away a lot of the fun I could have had as a student.

The hard truth is: restrictive eating isn’t possible to sustain.

I was taking away so much joy and spontaneity out of my life in order to try and ‘achieve’ something.

I was being ‘disciplined’ in my exercise routines and the amount of dance practice that I was doing that, eventually, my body would just want to rebel, scream,‘ give me a break’, materialising as binging my way through cupboards of food.

What’s annoying is, maybe if I had taken some time to practice some self-care and do some of the stuff that I considered ‘fluffy’ and ‘self-indulgent’ (like mediation, journaling, mindfulness, even ‘essential oils?) if I had reached out to that friend or let myself eat those cookies now and again, or taken that day off from the gym, I wouldn’t have got to that low place where I ended up. All the pain I’ve experienced was avoidable.

I remember feeling such a fear about going to get help. Will I gain weight? Will I be able to keep dancing? Will I be as disciplined with my workouts? These questions, I now realise, are precisely the reason why I needed to go into therapy.

Being a dancer does complicate things. In a way, doing a ballet class after a tiny breakfast felt amazing. Like, I was made of air. If I was getting complimented on my body during class, I wanted to replicate the same thing and under-eat tomorrow.

I’ve found focusing less on my physical form and more on the artistic side to my dancing has really transformed my artistry as a dancer

Progress is made when you are able to show up to the studio daily. Not if three days a week you don’t feel able to go, because of how much food you binged last night. Progress is made when your body is fuelled, not and when you’re out for months because every landing from a jump causes strain on an injury. A focus on strength rather than skinniness means that you can do so much more of the virtuosic things too.

Time I could have enjoyed on stage were overtaken by fears of what people might think of me. This caused so much tension in my dancing that some techniques such as hip-hop were impossible. The more I was obsessed with food, the less I was thinking about how I could dance at my best.

I’ve found focusing less on my physical form and more on the artistic side to my dancing – how does this movement make me feel? What can I say with this movement? What quality does the movement have and can I dance it a different way? – has really transformed my artistry, which takes as much time and effort as completing a perfect triple pirouettes. Eating disorder recovery is a great period of time that you can dedicate to working out your artistic flare as a dancer.

I was worried that starting recovery would transform my view of dance. It has. But I didn’t expect it to make me a better, more expansive dancer. The most important change is that I enjoy ballet lessons now. I enjoy dancing in front of people. Before getting help, I was very ready to give dancing up. I’m glad I didn’t.

-Contributed by Jonny

If you've been affected by any of the issues raised in this story, or are concerned for yourself or a loved one, you can find support and guidance on the help pages of our website.