Ask Amy: Anorexia's Aftershocks

Coming back from an eating disorder, plus tips on pulling up and how to survive on a first-year salary
Published in the December 2012/January 2013 issue.

Photo by Nathan Sayers

Have a question?
Click here to send it to Suzanne Farrell Ballet dancer Amy Brandt.

I’m 17, just coming back to ballet after taking a two-year break due to health complications from anorexia. My weight is back to normal now, but I still feel weak and I’m afraid I might have screwed up my body. Are there any physical issues that I should watch out for? —Catherine
First off, congratulations on taking the necessary steps toward overcoming anorexia—admitting you need help and pursuing treatment requires an enormous amount of courage. Recovery takes a long time, so as you come back to dance, be mindful of falling into old habits and seek out your treatment team if you find yourself struggling.

The weakness you feel is normal. According to Roberta Anding, a sports dietitian with Houston Ballet, when individuals rapidly shed large amounts of weight, they lose not only fat but muscle. As they gain weight back during the recovery process, they don’t necessarily replace lost muscle, resulting in fatigue. “It’s going to take some additional time for that weight to redistribute,” says Anding. She recommends supplementing your training with a regular Pilates class to help you gain some strength. Have patience—it’s hard enough to come back after two weeks, let alone two years.

One place you may have damage is your bones, since your teenage years are critical for bone development. Bones need estrogen, and if your anorexia caused you to stop menstruating, you may develop low bone mineral density (called osteopenia), which could eventually lead to osteoporosis. Unfortunately, popping calcium supplements won’t help much. The best approach, says Anding, is to gain enough weight to achieve regular, spontaneous periods (without the aid of birth control pills) as soon as possible. If you haven’t already, ask your doctor for a bone scan to check for bone loss.

I can’t seem to figure out how to pull up my thighs without making my quadriceps look like they’re popping out. Do you have any tips? —Rebekah
Your thighs should look and feel engaged when you pull up. But don’t just grip your quadriceps to death! Pulling up is about more than the thighs—it’s the result of properly engaging your turnout. Try thinking of it this way: When you’re standing in first or fifth position, squeeze together the muscles right underneath the buttocks (without tucking your pelvis under). While you rotate your legs outwards, think of lifting up from the knees and engaging your abdominals—you should feel a spiraling sensation wrapping up and around your legs. Notice how your thigh muscles fire automatically. The result is a solid, lifted and supported position that will prevent you from sinking into the hip or hamstring and help you stay on your leg.

I just received a first-year corps contract! I really like the company, but I can’t survive on the salary. I don’t want to audition somewhere else just because of the paycheck. How can I make this work? —Leslie
You’re not alone. So many dancers—myself included—have faced the same dilemma. Sometimes sacrifices are necessary to make the most of a great career opportunity. Look for ways to trim your budget. Since rent will be your biggest expense, see if you can find a roommate or two—or three—to keep costs down. Consider public transportation or car-pooling to save on car payments and gas. I was (and still am!) a frequent shopper at discount clothing stores like T.J.Maxx and Loehmann’s, and many of my friends have perfected the art of thrift store shopping.

Next, look for a flexible part-time job that pays well and won’t take up too much time. Inquire after teaching positions at the company school, or a weekend receptionist shift at a Pilates or yoga studio (free classes!). You could try waitressing a few nights a week—I used to work Sunday brunch when I was an apprentice. I even know some dancers who work the early morning shift at Starbucks (which offers the particularly helpful perk of health insurance), getting out in time for company class. Yes, you may feel a bit stressed by the extra work at first. But you’ll be able to lighten your load once you gain seniority in the company and earn a higher salary.