Fingers perfectly curved. Posture straight. Shoulders down. Thumb bent. Bow straight.
You missed that note. That doesn’t sound right. The pitch is too low. They won’t think you’re playing is beautiful enough. You forgot to play dynamics. That note was too early.
Practice harder. Practice longer. Must be perfect.
These are just a few of the thoughts I would have in a matter of seconds while playing the cello as a serious classical musician in high school.
Now, it’s no secret that musicians can be a bit obsessive, even psychotic, but in all my years in the eating disorder recovery community I have never really heard anyone talk about the possible connection between EDs and musicians. This was something I had considered in the back of my mind for a while before recently taking to Google, what I always do as a journalist with questions to answer. It only took a quick search to find research supporting my instinct, that there is a connection between being a musician and developing an eating disorder.
The reason I had hypothesized that there is this connection was because of my personal experience as a classical cellist who developed anorexia, knowing several other musicians who have eating disorders, and noticing some celebrities talk about their own struggles. Sure enough, researchers must have had the same hypothesis I did because research has shown musicians are more likely to develop eating disorders. Kapsetaki & Easmon (2017) found that there is a higher prevalence in eating pathology among musicians and that this is due to many risk factors found in musicians: perfectionism, depression, anxiety, stress, peer pressure and social isolation.
Based on my own experience, I was in no way surprised by their findings given how intense musical environments can be. Perfectionism is pervasive in how musicians structure their rehearsals and performances. There is also an immense amount of pressure put on musicians to control their bodies, another risk factor in developing eating disorders. Musicians’ bodies are in many ways everything to them because it is how they create their artform. Athletes face similar pressures on their bodies, but it is more widely accepted that there is a connection with EDs and athletes. I want to make the case that musicians face similar struggles.
Just to be clear, it is not a simple causal relationship that being a musician causes you to have an eating disorder. These illnesses are far too complex for a reductionist explanation like that. It seems to be more along the lines of having certain traits leads to being a musician as well as developing an eating disorder. Being a musician may exacerbate these tendencies in some, but the social world is too complex to say one causes the other.
Many of you have probably heard about Demi Lovato’s struggles with her eating disorder and substance abuse. She has strived to be open about her eating disorder to help normalize that EDs can happen to anyone. I really respect her for making her struggle public, especially as someone who is such a successful musician. She shows how musicians with even high levels of success can face these illnesses.
Another famous musician who has opened up about his struggles, which is doubly impressive given the stigma around men with EDs, is Zayne Malik formerly of One Direction. Malik has talked about going days without eating under the stress of touring and having to keep up his image with One Direction. Musicians like him can be under so much pressure, it is no wonder that in today’s body-obsessed culture, these musicians have struggled with eating pathology.
Now that I’ve made my case, what can be done? Great, I’m glad you asked. So, in my experience, some musical environments are positive while others are toxic and harmful. If you are a musician, particularly one higher in the musical hierarchy, strive to make the musical environment you work in one of support instead of pressure for perfection. Obviously, there will be stress because that comes with a competitive job and artistic endeavors, but striving for a more supportive, less negative environment can make a world of difference. This is particularly true when working with younger musicians because they are still being shaped as people, who take what their mentors say to heart.
Additionally, if you are in no way part of the music industry and have made it this far (thank you!), then my message to you is to not forget how complex eating disorders are. They affect people in many different ways, coming from all sorts of factors. Don’t limit eating disorders to a certain stereotype of young female gymnasts and dancers when many types of people face these deathly mental illnesses. EDs are more complex than just being related to a certain profession, as there are many different biological, social, and environmental factors that influence their development. I will continue to educate myself on these complex illnesses that have affected the lives of so many and I hope you will too!