Categories
Body Image Dieting Eating Disorders Exercise Fitness Competitions

Perfectionism, Eating Disorders & Fitness Competitors

According to The Eating Disorders Review, perfectionism is a term ‘used to describe a psychological trait with associated behavioural tendencies. It is applied to individuals who believe that perfect states actually exist in certain domains…and that one should try to attain [them].1

Drawing from research studies and personal experience, I have found the perfectionist mind set to be common in both fitness competitors and in individuals with eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa.

Perfectionism occurs alongside eating disorders in 2 guises:

1. There are such things as perfect states. In the case of anorexia, the perfect state is to be thin.

2. Individuals with eating disorders follow what they consider to be the ‘perfect’ diet.

These 2 perfectionistic traits also apply to fitness competitors:

1. Their aim is to attain the perfect physique, which is typically lean and muscular.

2. This is achieved by ‘perfectly’ adhering to their nutrition plan and training.

While perfectionism is often seen as a desirable quality, when it is directed towards manipulating the body it can have damaging, and even fatal consequences.

If someone starves themselves perfectly, for example, they will not survive.

PERFECTIONIST TRAIT #1: ACHIEVING THE PERFECT BODY

As a former Bikini Competitor and recovering anorexic, I have pursued two different versions of what I considered to be the perfect body.

When I first developed an eating disorder age 11, it was 1994 and the era of slender supermodels Kate Moss and Gisele Bundchen.

The trend was for thin arms, prominent collar bones and a perfectly flat stomach. Consequently, my vision of the perfect body was the skeletal fashion model. Today, for anorexics, thin and perfect remain synonymous.

In my late 20s, when I entered the competition world, my concept of the perfect body shifted. Perfect body number two was still thin, but now it was rebranded as lean. It also developed muscles.

The similarities between these two versions of the perfect body are highlighted by Susan Bordo in her work Bodies. Here she observes that many bodybuilders, ‘talk about their bodies in ways that resonate disquietingly with typical anorexic themes.’2

Like people with eating disorders, fitness competitors are driven by the need to eliminate physical imperfections. Guidelines for the UK’s largest bodybuilding and fitness federation (UKBFF) state that competitors should present ‘a balanced, symmetrically developed, complete physique.’3

The winning trophy will only be awarded to the perfect body.

Bodybuilders talk about their bodies that resonate with anorexic themes

During my own competition career, it was 2015 when my body finally matched the judge’s vision of perfection and I won the coveted title of Pro Bikini Athlete.

However, as was the case when I was extremely thin during my teens and early 20s, achieving this figure came at great mental and physical cost.

Physically, the two versions of what I considered to be the perfect physique were impossible to maintain. This is because restricting food intake places the body in a state of starvation.

High standards of physical perfection can lead to self-criticism, body dysmorphia and depression

The body responds to any calorie deficit, no matter whether it is the result of an eating disorder, or more ‘normal’ dieting by making physiological adaptations. These include increasing appetite, lowering metabolism and driving up set point weight as insurance against future famine.

In terms of mental cost, the high standards of physical perfection set by both fitness competitors and individuals with anorexia can lead to self-criticism, body dysmorphia and depression.

PERFECTIONIST TRAIT #2: THE PERFECT DIET 

As is often the case with eating disorders, fitness competitors typically have an ‘all or nothing’ approach.

When comparing the psychological profiles of athletes and those with anorexia, one study found that both had elevated levels of anxiety, obsessive behaviours, and perfectionism.4

This was certainly my experience of preparing for a competition. I was extremely regimented with my nutrition and training. My workouts were precise: I lifted weights at the strict tempos stated on my programme; I timed my rest periods to the second; and I panicked if the gym was busy and I was unable to perform my exercises in the correct order.

More importantly, my nutrition had to be exact. I believed that following my complicated diet plan to the letter (which involved accurately weighing food to the gram, and eating at specific times) was the way to avoid failure.

This is in keeping with Brene Brown’s definition of perfectionism. In her work, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown describes perfectionism as a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought:

If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgement, and blame.5

Perfectionism is a shield that protects us from being hurt.

I believed that having the perfect body would grant confidence, happiness, and social approval. Instead, however, this ideal kept me locked in a never ending cycle of self-criticism and despair if I failed to meet my own impossibly high standards.

BLACK AND WHITE THINKING

Most perfectionists think in terms of black and white. We either do something 100%, or not at all.

For example, do any of these statements sound familiar?

It’s all gone wrong so I might as well give up

I can’t start anything unless I understand it perfectly

I’ve made a mistake so have to start all over again

It wasn’t perfect, therefore I have failed

Perfectionists have such high expectations that falling short of achieving a goal, or making a mistake along the way leads to catastrophizing:

Not achieving perfection may be experienced as utter failure.6

This often occurs with eating disorders where there is any form of dietary restriction. For example, if we impose rules such as ‘chocolate is forbidden’, then eating even a small piece of chocolate will lead us to believe that we have crossed some invisible line – from nothing: ‘I’m not allowed to eat any chocolate’, to all: ‘I may as well eat all the chocolate.’

Overeating then leads to feelings of guilt and despair, and often compensatory behaviours such as even more restriction, or purging. These behaviours then perpetuate the binge-restrict cycle.

CONCLUSION

Believing in and striving for perfection, whether it’s the perfect body, or the perfect meal or training plan, will set us up for failure.

Therefore we need to challenge the perfectionist mind set, and instead try to embrace the grey in-between states of being that are our imperfections.

Whether your idea of the perfect body is being as thin as possible, or looking like a bikini model, it is just an idea, an idealistic standard that by its very definition does not exist.

This concept is neatly summarised by Stephen Hawking:

One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist…..Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.


  1. http://eatingdisordersreview.com/nl/nl_edr_12_1_8.html
  2. Bordo, Susan, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (University of California Press: London, 1995)
  3. http://www.ukbff.co.uk/pdfs/bikini_category_rules.pdf
  4. http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/
  5. Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
  6. http://eatingdisordersreview.com/nl/nl_edr_12_1_8.html

Categories
Body Image Dieting Eating Disorders Exercise Fitness Competitions History

Is Your Body Alien?

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

‘I think, therefore I am’

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’.

A weight that burdens the soul

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.

Input = food; output = muscle

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:

Our body is judged as our individual production…our calling card, vested with showing the results of our hard work and watchfulness or, alternatively, our failure and sloth.3

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.

Miami Pro European Championships, 2015. I am second from left

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.

Competitors often experience anxiety about losing their lean competition physique

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:

We admire the success of their efforts to impose upon the natural body a shape and form which is the product of culture…[and] not appropriate for it.4

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.


  1. Bordo, Susan, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (University of California Press: London, 1995)
  2. Plato, Phaedo, in Five Dialogues, trans. by G.M.A. Grube, 2nd edn (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2002)
  3. Orbach, Susie, Bodies (Profile Books: London, 2009)
  4. Chernin, Kim, The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness (Harper Collins: New York, 1994)

Categories
Body Image Eating Disorders Fitness Competitions Recovery

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Body Dysmorphia

BODY IMAGE

Body image is defined as ‘the subjective personal interpretation of an individual’s body.’1 It consists of our thoughts, feelings and perceptions of our own bodies.

More than 75% of us have some kind of body obsession

Most of us are unable to ‘see’ our bodies as they really are. Distortion of body image is a pervasive cultural dysmorphia, with more than 75% of us having some kind of body obsession.

In some cases, body dissatisfaction may develop into Body Dysmorphic Disorder. This occurs in approximately 1% of the adult population2 and is defined as ‘intrusive images, thoughts, or urges centred on body image.’3

Body dysmorphia is the most widely known contributor to the development of disorderly eating behaviours, affecting 39% of inpatients with anorexia nervosa.

WHY WE ARE SO BODY OBSESSED

From a sociocultural perspective, our perception of how we look may become distorted because we are constantly exposed to images of ‘ideal bodies’.

In 2021, value is placed upon the slender, fit bikini body, a physique which is portrayed as the ticket to wealth, success and social approval.

The widespread distribution of this body ideal across print and online media inevitably stimulates comparison: we are socially conditioned to evaluate and measure ourselves against this idea of perfection.

There is often a mismatch between what society dictates we should look like, and how our bodies really appear

This comparison leads to body dissatisfaction since there is often a mismatch between what society dictates we should look like, and how our bodies really appear.

Dissatisfaction with appearance is one of two disturbances in body image that will be addressed in this article.

DISSATISFACTION WITH APPEARANCE

During my research on the subject of body image, I asked 50 women: ‘if it were possible, which part of your body would you change?’

The most common answer was ‘stomach,’ a physical aspect with which I have also had a lifelong fixation. My midsection is where my body tends to store fat; and, having had an eating disorder for 26 years, I also suffer from chronic bloating and distension.

Anorexics can feel relaxed only if the stomach is completely flat

This obsession with my stomach began aged 11 when I first developed anorexia nervosa. This is typical of this form of eating disorder, with many anorexics suffering from ‘persistent anxiety that eating may stretch the stomach or make it bulge; they can feel relaxed only if the stomach is completely flat.’4

The women who I interviewed also expressed a desire to change their legs, particularly their thighs; their breasts that were believed to be either too big or too small; their glutes that needed to be ‘firmer’; and their bingo wings. Three women said that would change everything.

Of the 50 interviewees, only one said that she would not change any part of her body.

BODY CHECKING

For those of us who are unhappy with aspects of our physiques, we may manage our appearance by excessive body checking. This includes measuring, weighing and constantly looking in the mirror.  

Keeping bodies under surveillance through mirrors can develop into a compulsion. For as long as I can remember, I have always checked my appearance (particularly my stomach) every time that I catch my reflection in a mirror or shop window.

The reason why we look in the mirror multiple times a day is to seek reassurance that we are still the same: to check that our bodies have not suddenly gained 10llbs in the last half hour.

If we feel like we are bigger, or more wobbly than we imaged, however, we then take action to ‘correct’ our bodies in the form of dieting and exercise.

Many of us are aware that there is a disjunction between how we perceive our reflected image, and the reality of our appearance

For those who suffer from body image distortion, many of us are aware that there is a disjunction between how we perceive our reflected image, and the reality of appearance. One woman I spoke to admitted: ‘even though I know I’m not overweight, when I look in the mirror I see a much larger person looking back at me.’

APPEARANCE AS IDENTITY

The second aspect of body image distortion is defining our identity in terms of our appearance.

So strong is our desire for social belonging that we alter our bodies to meet the physical ideal

Modern society holds beauty in high regard as a necessary trait; and so strong is our desire for social belonging that we alter our bodies to meet the physical ideal.

This need to be accepted within our social group is driven by a biological urge, and positively reinforced by the encouragement we receive when our bodies conform to cultural standards.

For example, in Western society, weight loss is often praised, with an individual’s ‘after’ pictures often receiving ‘likes’ and compliments. In addition, in the world of fitness competitions, many federations include a transformation category where the prize is awarded to the most drastic physical change. The more weight lost, the better.

This attention served to validate my efforts to emulate the beauty idea, and strengthened my resolve to work even harder

This type of appearance-based approval can be very seductive. In 2015, I was in the best physical shape of my life and became a Pro Bikini Competitor. Subsequently, I received frequent compliments on my physique; and comments praising my willpower and dedication. This attention served to validate my efforts to emulate the beauty ideal, and strengthened my resolve to work even harder.

Being a competitor became my identity.

Basing your identity and self esteem on something as transient as your appearance, however, is a risky business: something that I discovered the hard way.

After being starved and dehydrated for show day, returning to a more ‘normal’ diet following a competition causes the body to react by storing water and rapidly gaining weight.

This weight gain can exacerbate a competitor’s body dysmorphia since they compare their now now heavier, softer physique to what they looked like onstage. Many of my fellow competitors told me that during this post-competition period they usually ‘feel fat,’ and some even ‘hate’ their bodies.

They also reported being concerned about other’s people’s judgements of their figures: they fear that they will fail to live up to others’ expectations of how they ‘ought’ to look.

Basing your identity on your appearance makes you incredibly vulnerable

Basing your identity on your appearance, therefore, makes you incredibly vulnerable. In my case, losing my stage physique had a direct effect on my confidence; and triggered my most severe relapse into anorexia nervosa to date.

CONCLUSION

Now, 5 years into my recovery, I would like to share four things that I have learnt during my ongoing journey towards body acceptance:

  1. The way that we perceive our bodies is not necessarily reality.
  2. We tend to fixate on aspects of our bodies that cause us concern. The more we hone in on these aspects, however, the worse they will seem. So take a step back and look at your body as a whole; or, better still, avoid looking at your body at all.
  3. The closer I became to achieving my idea of a perfect body, the more miserable and anxious I felt. Having the ‘ideal’ body does not make you happy: in my case, it had the opposite effect.
  4. Happiness and self-worth need to come from something other than your appearance. For me, this is still a work in progress but I am getting there.  

In conclusion, it all comes down to the way we feel. When we look in the mirror, the reflected image is distorted by how we feel about our appearance.

It is not our bodies that require alteration, but our perceptions of them

While we are waiting for society to shed the beauty ideals that inform these feelings, we can remind ourselves that it is not our bodies that require alteration, but our perceptions of them. And we can change these by done by working on accepting our bodies, just the way they are.


  1. The Journal of Psychology
  2. Phillips, Katherine, ‘Fixing the Broken Mirror: Body Dysmorphic Disorder’, http://www.psychweekly.com/aspx/article/ArticleDetail.aspx?articleid=112
  3. Nussbaum, Abraham, The Pocket Guide to the DSM-5 Diagnostic Exam, American Psychiatric Publishing (Washington; London, 2013)
  4. Bruch, Hilde, The Golden Cage: The Engima of Anorexia Nervosa (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978; 2001)

Categories
Body Image Fitness Competitions History

The Hourglass Body

I spent years of my life trying to attain a curvaceous, yet also slender physique. And in 2014, when I was awarded the status of Pro Bikini Athlete, my figure was a near perfect hourglass with a 32” bust, 24” waist and 33” hips. This is the silhouette that is also favoured in the beauty pageant world.

When I researched this preference for the hourglass figure, I asked 50 women which they considered to be more more important: their body’s shape, or its weight. Most women chose shape, with 88% of them more concerned about their silhouette than the number on their scale.

88% of women are more concerned about the shape of their body, rather than its weight

The explanation for society’s preoccupation with this particular body type lies in the shape’s symbolic meaning. The hourglass figure is desirable as a biological and social signifier: its voluptuous curves accentuate the difference between male and female bodies.

In addition, scientific research proves that the narrow-waisted figure serves an evolutionary, as well as social, purpose. This preference originates in the desire to attract a mate since, according to Nancy Ectoff’s  Survival of the Prettiest, ‘men are automatically excited by signs of a woman who is fertile, healthy, and hasn’t been pregnant before.’1

The waist is one of the body’s best indicators of hormonal function

Within a theoretical context, this body is the result of biological attraction since ‘[t]he waist is one of the body’s best indicators of hormonal function.’2 Women with ‘a waist-to-hip ratio below .8’ are twice as likely to conceive and bear children than those whose waist-to-hip ratio rises above this figure.3

The constricted waist, for example, has been ‘considered highly erotic by men’ owing to its suggestion of weakness and vulnerability.4 This is often the case with women’s appearance norms since other aspects such as extreme slenderness, high heels and tight clothing also indicate submission.

Maintained in a state of passivity by their restrictive apparel, it could be said that women are thereby more easily subject to masculine control. As David Kunzle notes in Fashion and Fetishism:

‘[s]ylph-like delicacy of body and fragility of waist have exercised an almost archetypal attraction for man…It is both foil and invocation to his superior socio-sexual power.’5

The hourglass body, with its emphasis upon full bust and hips contrasted with a narrow waist, simultaneously suggests sexual innocence and reproductive potential.

Within the modern world of physique competitions, this hourglass figure is exaggerated in the bikini class where models are expected to have wide shoulders, glutes and legs, offset by a tight waist.

This body type represents the fitness industry’s standard of beauty. When I asked female competitors which aspects of a woman’s body they considered to be beautiful, they described the hourglass shape, preferring a figure with a ‘peachy bum and big breasts’ that is also ‘lean with curves.’

As I mentioned in Keeping Up With The Body Ideal, the hourglass physique has been popular throughout history from the wasp-waisted Victorian lady to the 1950s housewife.

Its modern silhouette, however, holds a specific attraction. In September 2014, Vogue magazine declared ‘We’re Officially in the Era of the Big Booty’6 as Jennifer Lopez (whose buttocks are rumoured to be insured for £17 million)7 was joined in the derriere hall of fame by a multitude of celebrities and fitness models. 7 years on, and big bootys still reign supreme.

With the return of the hourglass figure, it’s ‘All About That Bass’, as confirmed by Meghan Trainor’s chart topping single. Glutes have become the standard focus of a body-obsessed media, endorsed by celebrities such as Nicki Minaj and Kim Kardashian.

When Nicki Minaj released the single ‘Anaconda,’ her ode to the derriere, its shocking cover art presented her famous posterior, clad in the most minimal of bikini bottoms. The song’s raunchy video generated 19.6 million views in the first 24 hours of its release.

The music industry has since produced a multitude of songs that pay homage to the behind. Nicki Minaj appears once again in Busta Rhymes’ ‘#TWERKIT’; while ‘Booty’ by the original booty queen, Jennifer Lopez, features the curvaceous Iggy Azeala.

Most famous however, is ‘All About That Bass’, in which Meghan Trainor claims that she is ‘bringing booty back,’ having ‘all the right junk in all the right places.’ In 2014, the single was the UK’s longest running chart topper, selling over 6 million copies worldwide.8

Despite its popularity, however, the song was accused of anti-feminism. This was owing to lyrics that suggest the booty’s appeal lies in its ability to attract male attention. Despite Trainor’s protestations that her aim was to promote body-confidence, the single came under attack for thin shaming. This was owing to its reference to ‘skinny bitches’, and the singer’s claim that she ‘won’t be no stick figure silicone Barbie doll.’

J Lo and Trainor may sing about their ‘bootys’, yet the current queen of all things curvaceous is Kim Kardashian, with her voluptuous assets contributing to her $900 million dollar worth. While Kardashian insists that she has ‘honed her curves with gruelling training sessions’,9 many famous women, including Heidi Montag and Nicki Minaj, have undergone surgery to enhance their figures.

Minaj’s behind has even served as an inspiration to other celebrities, including ‘The Only Way Is Essex’ star, Chloe Sims. According to Reveal magazine Sims went to her doctor and said:

Give me the Nicki Minaj10

With cosmetic surgery becoming increasingly normalized, the most popular invasive treatment in recent years is the Brazilian Bum Lift. For those looking to create the hourglass figure, it is now possible to combine this treatment with ‘a fat transfer into the breasts.’11

This obsession with celebrity backsides is fuelled by social media. Typing ‘glutes’ into the Instagram search box yields 6.4 million results. This includes almost 376,000 ‘belfies’ (bum selfies). This is a trend that emerged within social media’s narcissistic world of self-photography. Allegedly instigated by singer Rihanna, the belfie is now a social media phenomenon.

In 2015, Cosmopolitan magazine published an article entitled ‘The Most Bubblicious Butts on Instagram’, which showcased 58 women who have apparently truly mastered the ‘belfie.’ One of Kim Kardashian’s voluptuous offerings went viral, with ‘more than 250,000 likes on Instagram after two hours of being posted’.12 Kim has since profited from her assets and launched her own range of shapewear in 2019. Her first collection sold out in minutes, earning her $2 million on the first day.13

When a celebrity is photographed with anything other than a perfectly sculpted (or posed) derriere, however, horror ensues. Pictures of Miley Cyrus’ less than toned bottom, snapped while she was ‘twerking’, became a media sensation and the subject of anti-motivation memes throughout the internet.

The belfie trend not only pervades the world of celebrity, but is also a dominant aspect of the fitness community. In a departure from tradition, Sports Illustrated’s 50th anniversary edition depicted models in a pose that showcased their behinds.14 The ab crunch has been replaced by the hip thrust, an exercise that was popularised by ‘The Glute Guy’: trainer and glute specialist, Bret Contreras.

Despite the current trend for curves, however, this fetish for the voluptuous does not normally extend to plus size women. Curves are typically desirable only if accompanied by low body fat and a tight waist.

For now, women are still kept restrained and powerless by a primal preference for an hourglass body that has been taken to cultural extremes.


  1. Ectoff, Nancy, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty
  2. ibid
  3. ibid
  4. Rothblum, Esther D., Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders
  5. Kunzle, David, Fashion and Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-Lacing and Other Forms of Body Sculpture (Sutton Publishing Limited, UK, 2004)
  6. http://www.vogue.com/1342927/booty-in-pop-culture-jennifer-lopez-iggy-azalea/
  7. http://www.elle.com/uk/life-and-culture/articles/a30167/mariah-carey-jennifer-lopez-doly-parton-celebrities-insured-body-parts/
  8. Fraser, Deborah, Closer, 31st Jan-6th Feb 2015, Issue 632, Interview with Meghan Trainer
  9. Packer, Sarah, Closer, 31st Jan-6th Feb 2015, Issue 632, Sarah Packer, Kim blasts Amber: ‘I’m the booty queen – stop copying my curves!’
  10. madamenoire.com/446585/celebs-who-admitted-to-butt-injections/6/
  11. comparethetreatment.com/the-uks-top-cosmetic-surgery-trends-for-2015/
  12. www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/kim-kardashian-nearly-naked-picture-2461774
  13. hypebae.com/2019/9/kim-kardashian-skims-shapewear-sold-out-restock-earnings
  14. mamamia.com.au/wellbeing/sports-illustrated-swimsuit-cover-2014-butts/

Categories
Body Image Eating Disorders Exercise Men Recovery

Freddie Flintoff: Men and Eating Disorders

CW: details of purging behaviours.

In the BBC One documentary ‘Living with Bulimia,’ former England Cricket Captain Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff speaks openly for the first time about his 20 year struggle with the eating disorder bulimia nervosa. In the programme, he gives an honest account of his experiences with body dysmorphia, self-induced vomiting and compulsive exercise, which began during his cricketing career when his weight came under scrutiny from the British media.

Today 1.5million people in the UK are reported to have bulimia, 25% of which are men. The actual number of male sufferers, however, is likely to be much higher: a 2007 study suggests that it is closer to 40%.1

Eating disorders are often considered to be female illnesses

The reason why this condition often goes unreported is owing to sex-related stigma. Eating disorders are often considered to be female illnesses, meaning that only 10% of men pursue treatment. Flintoff himself was prevented from disclosing his bulimia owing to his dietician’s discriminatory attitude towards men and eating disorders.

Until being interviewed for this documentary, Flintoff kept his eating disorder secret for 2 decades. Ashamed of his condition, he still finds it difficult to even say the word, ‘bulimia.’ Instead, he refers to it as ‘being sick’.

The secrecy and shame associated with bulimia gave him the sense of having a duel identity. Publicly, Freddie Flintoff is a famous TV presenter and international sportsperson; but privately, he suffers from such low self-esteem that he is compelled to vomit after every meal.

When he began his sporting career age 16, Flintoff had what he describes as a ‘skinny’ physique.2 At this time he became aware of the difference between his own teenage body and those of his teammates, who, in comparison, were more muscular.

The British press christened him ‘The Fat Cricketer’

Over the next few years, Flintoff consequently attempted to increase his size in order to have ‘more presence’.3 Yet, he was not fully aware of how much weight he had gained until his appearance caught the attention of the British press who christened him ‘The Fat Cricketer.’ It was this weight shaming that was the trigger for his 20 year long struggle with bulimia.

By shaming Flintoff for his weight gain, the media reinforced the idea that a professional sportsperson should have a certain type of body, i.e. lean and athletic. Because he did not accord with their aesthetic ideal, Flintoff was publicly humiliated.

This type of discrimination has been documented as posing a significant threat to psychological and physical health; and is also a risk factor for depression, low self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction.4

It is often weight stigma that causes eating disorders

As in Flintoff’s case, it is often weight stigma that causes eating disorders. It was only after the press commented on his appearance that he became concerned about his size. Constantly under the scrutiny of the public eye and known as ‘Fat Flintoff’, Freddie consequently began engaging in destructive behaviours in order to lose weight, making himself sick after every meal.

This behaviour was reinforced by a subsequent improvement in his cricket performance and positive attention from the previously critical British media. This, therefore, confirmed his idea that a trimmer physique was his ticket to increased sporting performance and social approval.

Flintoff also admits that he derived a ‘perverse’ enjoyment from the act of purging itself. He describes it as being addictive, a descriptor commonly used by patients with bulimia since purging activates the opioid (or addictive) part of the brain.5 For many individuals, being sick often provides feelings of comfort, euphoria or instant relief, which makes it difficult to stop.6

Although Flintoff states that he currently has his vomiting under control, he still purges via excessive exercise by carrying out an hour of fasted cardio every morning, becoming anxious if he is unable to train.

Amongst male athletes like Flintoff, purging can lead to serious outcomes that may affect their particular sport. These include ‘increased susceptibility to injury, inconsistent performance, problematic recovery [and] muscle deficiencies.’7

He still experiences guilt and an urge to make himself sick

Although his eating disorder is now functional, in addition to carrying out compulsive exercise, he still experiences guilt and an urge to make himself sick after eating.

Despite these symptoms, however, Flintoff questions whether he is in need of treatment. His claims that he is in control of his eating disorder and can stop whenever he wants, however, are inconsistent with his previous comments that he feels out of control and isn’t able to stop.

Despite bulimia’s medical diagnosis, Flintoff continues to perceive the condition, not as an illness, but part of who he is. It is perhaps owing to his strong identification with his eating disorder that he has not yet made a full recovery. Believing that it is an inherent aspect of his personality means that he will not be open to change.

 ‘Gaining weight would be his worst nightmare’

Flintoff’s reluctance to seek help also seems to be driven by the fear of renouncing his purging behaviours since, as he states, ‘gaining weight would be [his] worst nightmare’.8 Yet, this help can be vital, since ‘almost half of all people with bulimia will not recover without treatment’.9

The importance of Freddie Flintoff sharing his story is that not only is it a stepping stone towards his own recovery; but it will also help to break the stigma surrounding gender stereotypes and eating disorders, and encourage more men to seek the help that they need.


  1. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/males-dont-present-females-eating-disorders [accessed 30 September 2020]
  2. Freddie Flintoff: Living With Bulimia, BBC Television, 28 September 2020
  3. Freddie Flintoff: Living With Bulimia, BBC Television, 28 September 2020
  4.  Andreyeva, T., Puhl, R. M. and Brownell, K. D. (2008), Changes in Perceived Weight Discrimination Among Americans, 1995–1996 Through 2004–2006. Obesity, 16: 1129–1134. doi:10.1038/oby.2008.35
  5. https://eating-disorders.org.uk/information/bulimia-nervosa-a-contemporary-analysis [accessed 30 September 2020]
  6. https://mirror-mirror.org/eating-disorders-2-2/bulimia-nervosa [accessed 30 September 2020]
  7. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1941738120928991 [accessed 30 September 2020]
  8. Freddie Flintoff: Living With Bulimia, BBC Television, 28 September 2020
  9. https://eating-disorders.org.uk/information/bulimia-nervosa-a-contemporary-analysis/ [accessed 30 September 2020]

Categories
Body Image Exercise Fitness Competitions Men

Muscle Dysmorphia in Male Bodybuilders

Over the past few decades there has been an increase in the exploitation of male body image insecurities. Thanks to an aesthetics driven media and a $100 billion-dollar global fitness industry, men are now more than ever under pressure to conform to a certain type of physique.1

This means that body dysmorphia is a growing issue amongst men, who compare themselves to society’s idea of the perfect masculine body. Today, men are told that they should be muscular and lean, with a chiselled jaw and six pack abs.

23 years ago, the trend to embody this muscular ideal led to the diagnosis of a new body dysmorphia subtype. This was known as muscle dysmorphia (aka reverse anorexia or bigorexia). Individuals with this condition believe that their body is insufficiently muscular, regardless of actual muscle size and definition.

Male athletes are particularly vulnerable to developing muscle dysmorphia


Male athletes are particularly vulnerable to developing muscle dysmorphia, especially those who take part in aesthetic sports such as competitive bodybuilding.2 Bodybuilding epitomises the social ideal of muscularity: it is a sport judged solely on appearance.

When muscle dysmorphia first entered the literature in 1997, it was introduced as an aspect of what was coined the Adonis Complex by Harvard professors Harrison Pope et al. Their work documented the body dissatisfaction experienced by millions of men worldwide which led to ‘compulsive weightlifting and exercising, steroid abuse, eating disorders, and body dysmorphic disorder.’3

Muscle dysmorphia has also been placed on the obsessive compulsive disorder spectrum. This is because it is characterised by obsessive thoughts of increasing muscularity and reducing body fat, and a compulsive drive to achieve these goals. These compulsions assume the form of camouflaging; and repetitive body checking behaviours, such as measuring the size of muscles, flexing muscles in the mirror and frequent weighing.


CRITERIA


Despite its somewhat confused aetiology, muscle dysmorphia is now included in the DSM V as a form of body dysmorphic disorder. In order to be diagnosed, individuals must meet two of the following four criteria:


1: The individual frequently gives up important social, occupational or recreational activities because of a compulsive need to maintain their workout and diet schedule.

During my own research, all bodybuilders confessed that they are obsessed with training, and frequently turn down or cancel social events because of their weight lifting regime. Training also significantly interferes with their jobs and their relationships. If they are forced to forego a training session, athletes experience depression and anxiety and feel compelled to make up for the missed workout.

2: The individual avoids situations where their body is exposed to others, or endures such situations only with marked distress or intense anxiety.


In Pope’s original research, 88% of men with muscle dysmorphia reported being afraid to take their shirt off in public.4 This is also true of the bodybuilders I interviewed. Despite being able to stand on stage in nothing but the smallest of shiny posing trunks, they otherwise avoid situations or activities, such as swimming, where their bodies would be exposed.

They fear appearance-based rejection


This anxiety may originate from a desire for social acceptance. Meeting sociocultural expectations means that they are rewarded with encouragement in the form of attention and compliments. Conversely, if they do not feel that their bodies are lean enough, or muscular enough then they fear appearance-based rejection.

3: The preoccupation about the inadequacy of body size or musculature causes clinically significant distress or impairment.

Despite other people commenting on their muscle mass, all of the bodybuilders who took part in my research believe that they are insufficiently muscular. They even confessed to hating their bodies and are constantly preoccupied with negative body-image related thoughts. One study found that men with muscle dysmorphia spent more than five hours a day worrying that they are not muscular enough.5

Competitive bodybuilders have high standards of physical perfection that leads to comparison and self criticism

Competitive bodybuilders set themselves such high standards of physical perfection that it leads to relentless comparison and self criticism. The nature of competitive bodybuilding lends itself to this kind of judgement since competitor’s physiques will be compared to determine who goes home with the winning trophy.

The belief that they are insufficiently muscular has a direct effect on bodybuilders’ mental health, leading to lack of confidence, low self-esteem and anxiety.

4: The individual continues to work out, diet or use performance-enhancing substances despite knowledge of adverse physical or psychological consequences.6

Despite being aware of the risks, bodybuilders make conscious decisions to engage in health-compromising practices. These include excessive training, extreme dieting and anabolic steroid use.

Aside from a decrease in physical performance, excessive strength training can cause a wide range of adverse health effects. These include ‘adrenal insufficiency, chronic injuries, gastrointestinal distress, and immune dysfunction.’7 These conditions occur because the human body is not naturally designed to endure such large physical stress.

CAUSE

The cause of muscle dysmorphia is multifaceted with various cognitive, biological, psychological and sociocultural factors that influence its expression

The biological model proposes that the condition may be ‘a problem of somatoperception’ (a problem with knowing your own body). This is thought to be ‘related to organic lesions or processing issues in the right parietal lobe of the brain.’8

Other research suggests that some individuals have a genetic predisposition to developing muscle dysmorphia. This biological theory also involves an environmental component since it proposes that the condition only emerges following exposure to certain trauma such as domestic violence, physical assault, bullying or abuse.


Given the correlation between muscle mass and strength, it is understandable how the desire for a strong, muscular body may be a reaction to physical abuse or feelings of vulnerability. Being muscular is a way of safeguarding and defending oneself against future mistreatment.

Several of my interviewees had experienced bullying and even serious trauma, leaving one man I spoke to suffering from complex PTSD. He confessed that his muscular physique makes him feel more able to protect himself, and others: it is his ‘safety blanket.’

Athletes tend to have psychological factors that predispose them to muscle dysmorphia

In addition, athletes tend to have psychological factors that predispose them to muscle dysmorphia, such as perfectionism and high levels of competitiveness.9 These are linked in the world of competitive bodybuilding where success depends upon having a perfect, balanced physique.

TREATMENT

Despite its increasing prevalence and potentially serious consequences, muscle dysmorphia goes largely untreated. This is partly because it is difficult to diagnose.

Identifying the disorder can be problematic since competitive bodybuilders have an outward appearance of health

The characteristics that are associated with muscle dysmorphia, such as exercise and good nutrition, along with the discipline and motivation required to build a muscular physique, are typically viewed as positive traits.

Even if individuals with muscle dysmorphia are aware that they might need some kind of intervention, many are ashamed of their condition. There are social taboos both against men having body image concerns in the first place, and also against expressing their feelings about them.

Current treatment methods are the same as those prescribed for general body dysmorphia. These include cognitive behavioural therapy and antidepressant medications.10 Their efficacy remains controversial, however, and the relapse rate is high.11

Regarding future diagnosis and treatment, it is important that fitness coaches and health care professionals are informed about the signs and symptoms of muscle dysmorphia; and its potential dangers. This will enable them to identify who may be at risk and to prescribe the correct treatment.

There has to be a paradigm shift in how male bodies are portrayed

In order to tackle muscle dysmorphia on a wider sociocultural level, however, ultimately there has to be a paradigm shift in how male bodies are portrayed by media and advertising. It is important for us to remember that while Adonis was a demigod, everyone else is only human.


  1. https://www.businessinsider.com/fitness-has-exploded-into-a-nearly-100-billion-global-industry-2019-9?r=US&IR=T
  2. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1557988318786868
  3. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247715403_The_Adonis_Complex_The_Secret_Crisis_of_Male_Body_Obsession_Looking_Good_Male_Body_Image_in_Modern_America_Making_the_Body_Beautiful_A_Cultural_History_of_Aesthetic_Surgery_Body_Modification
  4. Pope, H.G.; Phillips, K.A.; Olivardia, R, The Adonis Complex: How to Identify, Treat, and Prevent Body Obsession in Men and Boys (Touchstone, New York, 2000)
  5. Pope, H.G.; Phillips, K.A.; Olivardia, R, The Adonis Complex: How to Identify, Treat, and Prevent Body Obsession in Men and Boys (Touchstone, New York, 2000)
  6. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/23225701_Bigorexia_Bodybuilding_and_Muscle_Dysmorphia
  7. http://darwinian-medicine.com/the-dangers-of-excessive-strength-training/
  8. https://ziggibson.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/muscle-dysmorphia-and-the-adonis-complex-mirror-mirror-on-the-wall-why-am-i-not-the-biggest-of-them-all/
  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscle_dysmorphia
  10. http://eprints.worc.ac.uk/4859/1/Muscle%20Dysmorphia%20Current%20insights.pdf
  11. https://ziggibson.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/muscle-dysmorphia-and-the-adonis-complex-mirror-mirror-on-the-wall-why-am-i-not-the-biggest-of-them-all/
Categories
Body Image Eating Disorders History

Keeping Up With The Body Ideal

Throughout history, women have been compelled to alter their bodies in order to meet variable standards of physical perfection.

With its tight mid-section and muscular curves, the ‘bikini body’ is the ideal to which we are currently told to aspire. A lean physique, however, has only become fashionable during the last century.

The ideal body was big and matriarchal, symbolising fertility and female power

Prior to this, voluptuousness was idolised and fleshy figures were prized in cultures all over the world. Evidence of this dates back to 21,000 BC, as portrayed by the Palaeolithic chalk statue, the Willendorf Venus. The ideal body was big and matriarchal, its swollen form symbolising fertility and female power.

This notion of beauty persisted until the 1800s when there was a marked shift in the female body ideal. It was during this period that slenderness first came into fashion: the ascetic model that graces our modern runways originated in the wasp-waisted silhouette of the Victorian lady.

The corset’s lacing and whalebone reinforcement caused gradual shifting of the internal organs

In 1893, one beauty journal claimed that ‘a slender, well-proportioned figure is the desire of most women.’ Replicating this aesthetic that was both slim and curvaceous required the use of a corset. The corset’s lacing and whalebone reinforcement caused gradual shifting of the internal organs to create the coveted hourglass figure with exaggerated bust and hips, offset by a narrow waist. Vogue magazine even featured a tightly-laced model on the cover of its first ever publication in 1892.

This move towards slenderness was the result of a change in women’s socio-political status. During the latter half of the nineteenth century the balance of power between the sexes began to change when suffragettes campaigned for the right to vote.

In the 1920s, dieting became a serious female preoccupation

During this period, the alteration in women’s appearance reflected their political aspirations for freedom and power. In the 1920s, female emancipation coincided with a new svelte ideal when the epitome of beauty became the boyish ‘flapper.’ As a consequence, dieting became a serious female preoccupation. This resulted in a marked increase in the number of women diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.

The following decades saw the return of the cinched waist, yet the ideal body retained the slenderness of the narrow-hipped, small-chested flapper. It was not until the 1950s that the hourglass figure returned in full force.

Glamorous celebrities such as Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe contributed to a voluptuous ideal that had echoes of Victorianism with its petite waistline. This was achieved by wearing a girdle, however, rather than a tightly-laced corset.

This beauty ideal was reflected in the immensely popular Barbie doll, which was introduced in 1959 and boasted a large bust, long legs and an impossibly small waist.

Since the 1960s, the figure possessed by models, playboy centrefolds and beauty contestants has become increasingly slim. This trend began with British model Leslie Hornby, nicknamed Twiggy, who stormed the fashion scene when she appeared in Vogue in 1965.

Twiggy quickly became a cultural icon of femininity with millions of women across Britain and America engaging in self-starvation in order to emulate her waif-like fragility. As the ideal body reduced in size, definitions of ‘overweight’ subsequently began to include ‘normal-sized’ women.

By the early 1980s, the fashion for delicate femininity was replaced by a more ‘toned’ physique. This was reinforced by an emerging culture of health and fitness. For the first time, the ideal female body had muscle.

Shortly afterwards, however, health gave way to self-destruction and dissolution since the 90s’ aesthetic was based around ‘heroin chic’. The look, characterized by pale, emaciated features and unkempt hair was propounded by fashion models such as Kate Moss, who found fame in 1993 after featuring in an advertisement for Calvin Klein.

In 2020, those androgynous angles and unsmiling faces have now been replaced with toned, feminine curves as magazine covers and Victoria’s Secret runways are graced with happy, healthy looking models. Fitness culture has returned, bringing with it a trend for bodies that are curvaceous, yet also lean.

The hourglass figure of the nineteenth century is back. Without a corset, however, women must work even harder to achieve the contradictory aspects of a tight waist and ample curves.

Throughout the centuries, self-comparison with the ideal female form has contributed to bodily dissatisfaction and disorderly eating. From organ-shifting corsets, to extremely restrictive diets, women have engaged in physically damaging practices for hundreds of years in an attempt to replicate a perpetually shifting ideal.

If we are to achieve freedom from this, we must remember that the concept of the ideal body is merely a concept. It is an idea, invented by culture and continually subject to change.

Striving to achieve the ideal body will inevitably lead to failure

Consequently, striving to achieve the ‘perfect’ physique will inevitably lead to failure. Today, we are told that we must aspire to have a curvaceous bikini body. Tomorrow, the fashion may change to a more androgynous figure and the hard work must begin all over again….

Categories
Body Image Dieting Eating Disorders Exercise Fitness Competitions

Not-So-Fit-Spiration

CW: details of disordered eating behaviours.

Throughout the noughties, young women appealed to ‘thinspiration’ for advice on how they should look. Instagram was their Bible and the thigh-gap their ultimate goal. Recently however, this disturbingly slender model has developed muscle.

In 2021, the fitness body has become the ideal to which women are told they must aspire.

It is now becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the ever expanding world of ‘fitspiration.’ Via their motivational online content, sculpted gym bunnies and yoga pant clad ‘wellness’ gurus offer us an attractive alternative to being ‘thin.’

While thinspiration placed emphasis upon mental willpower, ‘be strong and get skinny’, modern fitness culture requires resilience of both mind and body. This is indicated by the slogan: ‘strong is the new skinny.’

Moving away from the comparatively simple starvation method, fitspiration encourages weight loss through ‘clean’ eating and exercise. On social media, women in neon sports bras inform their followers that today is ‘leg day’; and ‘meal 3’ was salmon with sweet potato.

Instagram feeds function as online food diaries where fitness enthusiasts post images of Tupperware-bound protein and greens. These are accompanied by their macronutrient values and the ubiquitous hashtag #absaremadeinthekitchen.


According to this trend, dieting must be supplemented by regular workouts in order to achieve the new ideal body that is not only lean, but also strong. The concave stomach of the thinspiration era now boasts a six pack; and the thigh gap has been replaced by muscular legs. A model’s rounded glutes are frequently the subject of fitspirational images where women are posed in the squat rack, dripping with sweat.

There are positive aspects to fitness culture. It can be encouraging in its (ostensible) quest for health, and is capable of promoting body confidence. Unlike the followers of its predecessor, advocates of fitspiration assert

I work out not because I hate my body but because I love it

The women who refused food, or spent their days slumped over a toilet bowl are now positive and strong.

Nevertheless, despite their outward appearance of health, the women who represent this lifestyle maintain an extremely low level of body fat. According to Muscle and Body Magazine, fitness models usually have 8.5-14% body fat, which is far lower than the 25-31% female average. For women, this can be particularly dangerous since a certain amount of body fat is necessary for their physiological health.

Compared to the anorexic girls of the thinspiration era, fitness models have a large amount of muscle mass, which means that they do not look ill and emaciated. Marketed as fitness, the new ideal body makes ‘thin’ socially palatable by its transition from the darker, self-harming world of anorexia towards a promise of health and happiness.

The danger of fitspiration lies in the fact that it is masquerading as health

With its confounding combination of muscular curves and low body fat, the fitness figure is even more unattainable than its ultra-thin predecessor. As was the case with the diminutive form of the Kate Moss ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ era, striving to attain the fitness model look causes serious damage to mental and physical health.

The thought patterns and behaviours of fitspiration are potentially as destructive and compulsive as self-starvation.


Attaining such a lean physique involves strict eating regimes and obsessive exercise, yet these activities are disguised by rhetoric of willpower and dedication. Like advocates of thinspiration, members of the fitness movement view their choices not as a dangerous obsession, but as part of a dedicated lifestyle.

This is reinforced by their mantra: ‘obsessed is a word the lazy use to describe the dedicated.’ In addition, the compulsive nature of these behaviours is confirmed by the claim that, ‘once you see results, it becomes an addiction.’

While today’s culture asserts that ‘strong is the new skinny’, this statement is undermined by its replication of many thinspiration conventions. Its followers photograph their meals, share weight loss tips, and post countless selfies; yet with a tighter, more muscular physique as their idol.

Fitspiration offers an even more impossible ideal


As well as promoting the same obsessions as its predecessor, fitspiration offers an even more impossible ideal. Looking like a fitness model requires heavy weight lifting, an impeccably rigid diet, and round the clock commitment; a truth overlooked by some of the young women who become swept up by this culture. You can read about my personal experiences of being a fitness model here.

Far from promoting a healthier attitude towards eating and body image, the fitness physique is merely a rebranding of anorexia-glorifying thinspiration. Despite fitspiration’s claim that, ‘strong is the new skinny’, strong remains resolutely lean.

Categories
Body Image Dieting

Paying To Be Perfect

Throughout history, society has been preoccupied with the concept of the ‘ideal’ female body. The modern definition of this ideal, slender and toned, yet also curvaceous, is so unattainable that women who try to reproduce it often develop problems with body image and disorderly eating.

But where does this ideal originate? And why do so many of us want to achieve it?

The answer lies in the current global market, which reflects a $166 billion health and weight management industry; a $532 billion beauty industry; and a $51 billion cosmetic surgery industry. The flawless female body is economically exploited by multinational corporations: it is ‘an icon created by capitalism for the sake of profit.’1

Beauty, fitness and diet industries target our insecurities

Beauty, fitness and diet industries generate their income by presenting us with a vision of the perfect body that targets our own insecurities. We are vulnerable to the power of this image since, in comparison, we are made to feel overweight and ugly.

The same companies then sell us products so that we can ‘correct’ our many physical deficiencies. These products promise to make us appear younger, slimmer and more attractive.

Under the guise of counselling women on ways they can attain physical perfection, companies increase their profit margins by nurturing bodily anxiety. They create a problem; then offer the solution. As long as bodily dissatisfaction is maintained, women are controllable and profitable.

These industries profit from selling bodily insecurity

Since these industries profit from selling bodily insecurity, they make us believe that we can improve ourselves by purchasing their products.

Women’s magazines and websites are packed with articles and adverts that provide solutions for sculpting the perfect glutes; reducing body fat; and getting rid of wrinkles. They tell us that transformation is easy, as long as we are willing to spend.

Companies not only advertise products to improve our physical exteriors; they also offer consumable items that promise to reduce our weight and size. Within modern culture, women and dieting are almost synonymous.

This weight preoccupation is created by the diet industry that is worth over £2bn in the UK alone. Diet companies profit by offering weight loss solutions that are unsustainable in the long term, thereby ensuring that women return to buy their products.

Low carbohydrate diets, for instance, can cause rapid weight loss, yet the rate of this loss decreases as the body adapts and metabolism lowers in order to compensate for lack of nutritional energy. Most diets offer a quick and easy solution, yet fail to counsel women on the long term effects, or their possible health risks.

More than 1 in 5 women claim they would consider weight loss surgery

In addition to investing in diet plans and products, an increasing number of women have resorted to surgery to shed the pounds. Weight loss surgery is on the rise, with a market worth of almost $6 billion in the USA. More than one in five women claim that they would consider surgical procedures to combat their weight.2

There is also a growing market for surgical and non-surgical cosmetic treatments. This is owing to the current body ideal that is both curvaceous and lean. Since this is almost impossible for most women to achieve naturally, surgery is often required.

According to The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, the top 3 cosmetic surgeries of 2019 include breast augmentation, with 7727 surgeries carried out during this year.3

Owing to the somewhat unnatural body ideal and the over-commercialisation of surgery, going under the knife has become a social norm. Since it is now possible to drastically change our bodies through diet, exercise and surgical procedures, however, the ideal has become increasingly unrealistic.

We are led to believe that we are perfectible

In these ways, capitalist industries perpetuate the myth that the physical form is a blank canvas to be constructed, improved and enhanced. We are led to believe that we are perfectible: that the body can be shaped according to our volition.

Feminist critic Susan Bordo points out that the body is no longer understood as ‘a biological “given” …but as a plastic potentiality to be pressed into the service of the image-to be arranged, re-arranged, constructed and deconstructed as we choose.’4

Being told that we have the power for self-improvement creates the illusion that we are in control of our own transformations. In reality, however, we are victims of commercial enterprise. 

Not only is the concept of the ideal body created for capitalist gain, it also serves to maintain patriarchal power. In a culture obsessed with bodies, we are made to feel ashamed of our own figures and engage in damaging behaviours in order to ‘fix’ them.

Accepting this ideal and believing that we can alter our bodies to achieve it has, according to Susie Orbach, ‘contributed to…a progressively unstable body, a body which to an alarming degree is becoming a site of serious suffering and disorder.’5

Subscribing to the demands of the cultural ideal, we become agents of our own oppression by engaging in self-regulatory practices as we starve, purge, nip, tuck and beautify our bodies.

By directing our energies towards meeting an impossible body ideal, this means that we do not have the time, energy, or confidence to challenge our position in society. In this way, our bodies have become mediums of cultural control that ensure we remain attractive, silent and obedient.

Society leads to believe that the problem lies with us: that if we mould ourselves to fit their ideal, our problems will be solved. Instead of trying to squeeze our bodies into a single cookie-cutter shape and size, however, we should celebrate the beautiful variety of female bodies. Instead of striving for individual change, we should aim for social revolution.


  1. Hesse-Biber, Sharlene, Am I Thin Enough Yet?: The Cult of Thinness and the Commercialization of Identity, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996)
  2. https://comparethetreatment.com/the-uks-top-cosmetic-surgery-trends-for-2015/
  3. https://baaps.org.uk/media/press_releases/1708/cosmetic_surgery_stats_number_of_surgeries_remains_stable_amid_calls_for_greater_regulation_of_quick_fix_solutions
  4. Bordo, Susan Feminisms
  5. Orbach, Susie Bodies, (Profile Books, London, 2009)
Categories
Body Image Dieting Eating Disorders Exercise Fitness Competitions Recovery

Hanging Up The Bikini: Why I Quit Competing

CW: details of eating disordered behaviours.

In October 2014, at age 31 I achieved the award that marked the pinnacle of my fitness competition career: the coveted Bikini Athlete Pro Card. Standing onstage in a Hertfordshire theatre, smiling for the winner’s photographs, I appeared the epitome of health and fitness. But, in reality, I was suffering from serious physical and mental damage.

Entering the world of fitness competitions triggered a major relapse

I have had a disordered relationship with food since I developed anorexia at the age of 11. Over the years, I have also suffered from body dysmorphia and bulimia. When I was in my late 20s, entering the world of fitness competitions triggered a major relapse into these destructive patterns of eating.

I am second from the left

Fitness competitions are a misnomer. The irony of these events lies in the very title itself: fitness is not necessarily synonymous with health. I was a fitness model, yet I was far from fit. I ignored my body’s appeals for food and rest, and instead rigidly adhered to punishing diet and training regimes in the hope that they would make me muscular and lean.

In the fitness world, disordered eating is extremely common

These types of strict routines mean that most competitors become disconnected from their bodies and what they truly need. Unsurprisingly, therefore, in the fitness world disordered eating is extremely common. Female athletes have the same risk factors as women in the general population, supplemented by the additional risk of reducing their body fat to dangerously low levels.

Body fat is decreased during the final stage of competition preparation, which is masochistically known as ‘cutting’. This typically begins eight to twelve weeks prior to a show, depending on the amount of fat that must be lost in order to create a winning physique.

This process increases the female competitor’s susceptibility to three inter-related disorders, known as the Female Athlete Triad. The components of the triad are osteoporosis, amenorrhea and disordered eating.

Osteoporosis occurs because limiting calorie intake leads to a decreased production of the hormone oestrogen. Since oestrogen plays a crucial role in calcium resorption and bone growth, reduced levels can lead to brittle bones.

Even though I was following an extremely restrictive diet, I naively thought that any damage would be offset by my strength training which typically increases bone density. After competing, however, I had a bone density (DEXA) scan, which revealed that my bone density was borderline abnormal.

This was the last time I lost my period before I learned that I was infertile


Not only does a low level of oestrogen lead to brittle bones, it also causes menstrual dysfunction where the cycle can be delayed, or can stop altogether (known as amenorrhea). Owing to my restrictive eating habit, I have lost my period on numerous occasions over the past two decades.

When I experienced amenorrhea during competition preparation, however, this was the last occasion before I learned that I was infertile. Three very costly and emotionally traumatic in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles later, and I am still waiting for my miracle baby.


While osteoporosis and amenorrhea are widely experienced by female athletes, the most common aspect of the triad is disordered eating. This includes extreme calorie restriction, binge eating, and purging via excessive exercise or self-induced vomiting. These abnormal patterns of behaviour are caused by the strict nutritional regime required during competition prep.

My own insubstantial food plan exacerbated my pre-existing patterns of disorderly eating. I was so hungry that I couldn’t keep any ‘forbidden’ food items in the house since I had moments of ‘weakness’, where I would ‘give in’ and binge. A teaspoon of peanut butter could easily become a whole jar.

I unsuccessfully attempted to alleviate my troublesome appetite by drinking litres of cherry Pepsi max and chewing sugar free gum. The Pepsi, however, gave me headaches and heart palpitations; and I chewed so much gum that I eventually wore away my teeth and had to have most of them filled.

Hunger increases during the final weeks of preparation, when carbohydrates are drastically decreased in order to boost fat loss. Reducing carbohydrates to less than 20g per day releases ketones which the body can then use as fuel. This process produces various side effects, however, including nausea, headaches and fatigue.

This established a pattern of eating which would later turn into a vicious cycle of restriction and binging

In order to avoid these undesirable symptoms, competitors typically cycle carbohydrates. This involves enduring several consecutive low carbohydrate days, followed by a high carbohydrate ‘refeed’ day to aid metabolism and ensure continual fat loss. I didn’t know at the time, but this established a pattern of eating which would later turn into a vicious cycle of restriction and binging.

In the end, all my hard work paid off. I won. And I was awarded my Pro Card. But was it worth it? On show day, the audience admire and applaud your physique. But they don’t see behind the curtain. They don’t see what it takes to be that woman holding the trophy. And they don’t see what happens afterwards.


Stepping off stage was the beginning of a relapse into my most serious and dangerous anorexic phase to date.


Terrified of losing my stage physique, I continued to restrict my calorie intake over the next couple of years. I lost body fat, and I also lost the muscle that I worked so hard to gain. My body literally ate itself. My glutes, the prize aspect of every bikini competitor, became saggy and deflated. My coccyx was so bony that I had to sit on a cushion. I was constantly cold from the inside out and handfuls of my hair fell out in the shower. I couldn’t go to the gym; I couldn’t even walk 10 minutes to the shop without feeling faint.

Eventually, my internal organs began to shut down and my hormones stopped functioning. I developed bradycardia because the muscles in my heart had shrunk.

I lost over 2 stone (12.7kg) before I was admitted into an eating disorders hospital, where I spent 18 months as an outpatient. I was emaciated and mentally broken, a shadow of the woman who triumphantly raised the winning trophy.

In my experience, having your dream body does not make your life better. For me, it did exactly the opposite.

Whether you are preparing for a fitness competition, or just trying to manipulate your body through diet and exercise, I hope this has brought attention to the physical and emotional damage that can be caused by valuing aesthetics over mental health.

I am now working towards food freedom and body acceptance. I still have my competition bikini as a memento, but its time in the spotlight is over and it is resolutely HUNG UP.