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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
- Bordo, Susan, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (University of California Press: London, 1995)
- Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection