In her book, Unbearable Weight, Susan Bordo writes that ‘[m]any body-builders, like many anorectics, unnervingly conceptualize the body as alien.’1
Individuals who push themselves to their physical limits with restrictive eating disorders or extreme training regimes often view their bodies as separate from their true selves: as alien.
This division between body and ‘self’ has dominated Western thought for thousands of years. Greek philosopher Plato was the one of first to distinguish the mind as being separate from (and superior to) the body.2
This idea was later reinforced by René Descartes’ in 1641 when he famously wrote
Descartes confirms his existence based on the fact that is able to think. This statement therefore echoes Plato’s concept that what constitutes the self resides in the mind, rather than in the body.
Also like Plato, Descartes asserts that the body is inferior to the mind, claiming that it prevents the acquisition of truth and wisdom.
The notion of body’s inferiority has long been an element of patriarchal culture. In our modern society, the rhetoric employed by women to describe their bodies is still founded upon shame and disgust. During my research on this topic, I interviewed 50 female fitness competitors, who all spoke of their bodies in these terms, describing them as ‘swollen’; ‘gross’; ‘fat’; and ‘all wrong’.
Throughout history, the body has been subject to various interpretations. It has been seen as a prison within which we are incarcerated; a being that rages beyond our control; a weight that burdens the soul; and an enemy against which we must do battle.
Competitors I spoke to perceive their bodies in many ways: as functional machines; as projects to be moulded and sculpted; and as physical symbols of their hard work.
Yet the idea that our bodies are separate from our true selves remains constant.
THE BODY AS MACHINE
During my research, I asked participants to complete the sentence ‘my body is…’
Some referred to their bodies as ‘machines’ or ‘tools,’ viewing them in terms of their functionality. They used positive language to describe them such as, ‘awesome’, ‘amazing’ and ‘extremely efficient’.
This type of mechanical body can also be controlled by the individual, who is able to improve the way it functions with the correct training and nutrition.
In order to achieve the best results, competitors calculate the optimum number of calories and macronutrients that they need to consume. They therefore perceive their bodies as machines that are able to transform food into flesh, in a simple equation of input = food; output = muscle.
THE BODY AS PROJECT
We work on our bodies. Whether we are dieting, applying cosmetics, or literally working out, our bodies can, to a certain extent, be moulded according to our volition.
Bikini competitors I spoke to referred to the body as an art project: as a ‘canvas’, and a ‘form of artistic expression’; an object that was being ‘chiselled to perfection.’
Because of this, most competitors I interviewed spoke about their about their body as a ‘work in progress.’ One bikini competitor related that her body was ‘always under construction’ because her ‘mind is never happy.’
The sense of the mind being dissatisfied with the body was a recurring theme. Others stated that there is ‘always room for improvement’ and revealed that they are constantly working towards ‘evolving’ their physique.
In the competition world, bodies are built up, then stripped down. Right before a show, they are dried out, slathered with orange tan, and finally adorned with bright stage jewellery and a glittering bikini.
Fitness competitors are judged on the outcome of these projects. Their stage ready bodies are the final result of months, maybe years, of hard work.
THE BODY AS SIGNIFIER
The body is a bearer of signs. The clothes we wear, the posture we adopt, how we style our hair, our musculature, whether we have tattoos, piercings or other physical modifications tell the world something about us.
As Susie Orbach writes in her book Bodies:
And whether we like it or not, we are always being judged on our appearance.
In the world of competitions, athletes display their bodies for the sole purpose of being judged. Their lean, muscular physiques are signifiers of their hard work, will power and dedication.
When I asked bikini competitors what their bodies symbolised, one said that her phsyique is crucial to how she is perceived. Others agreed, revealing that their body is a reflection of their choices, and a visual marker of their achievements.
Placing value upon the body looking a certain way, however, can also have drawbacks. If your body changes this can cause various psychological problems such as body dysmorphia, low self esteem, and disorderly eating.
After the competition season is over, athletes enter what is known as the ‘off season’, or ‘bulking season’. During this time, calories are increased in order to facilitate muscle growth. This also leads to an increase in body fat, which can cause distress since competitors are anxious to maintain their competition physique.
Since they fear they will be judged negatively if they are no longer stage lean, during the bulking season, competitors often conceal their bodies in loose clothing.
Anxious that they are gaining too much body fat, some engage in rituals such as constant body checking; and may even begin to restrict their calorie intake.
CONTROL OF THE BODY
Individuals who diet and exercise in preparation for a competition treat their bodies as separate from the self. The body becomes an object to be regulated and controlled.
Control is facilitated through mental discipline:
Both individuals with eating disorders and competitors aim to free themselves from physical urges, such as hunger and fatigue, that may prevent them from achieving control of the body.
This control often attracts admiration and respect. Kim Chernin writes:
This praise, however, further reinforces the resolve to subject our bodies to punishing exercise and nutrition regimes.
Pushing ourselves to our physical limits in these ways exacerbates the disconnection between the mind and body. Rather than paying attention to our bodies’ requirements, we continue to train when injured; we ignore signs of fatigue; and we become disconnected from our bodies to the point where we are unable to recognise our hunger and satiation cues.
Since we refuse to give our bodies what they need, after a time, we don’t even know what that is.
RECONNECTING WITH OUR BODIES
In order to bridge the gap between mind and body, we have to listen to what our bodies want. This may include having rest days from training so that muscles can grow and recuperate; stretching after a work out; having a sports massage; and taking taking time off to recover when injured.
In terms of nutrition, eat what works for you and feels best for your body. You can do this by paying attention to how your body reacts to certain foods. Avoid restricting calories, cutting out food groups, or creating rules around food e.g. no sugar, no food after 6pm. Otherwise you will experience hunger and cravings, which may lead to feelings of guilt if you break your self-imposed ‘rules’ and have a takeaway.
We need to reconnect with our bodies. Instead of trying to control them and force them into an unnatural shape, we should instead work towards appreciating what they do for us; and the way that through them, we are able to experience our lives.
- Bordo, Susan, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (University of California Press: London, 1995)
- Plato, Phaedo, in Five Dialogues, trans. by G.M.A. Grube, 2nd edn (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2002)
- Orbach, Susie, Bodies (Profile Books: London, 2009)
- Chernin, Kim, The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness (Harper Collins: New York, 1994)