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
Dieting

Why Diets Don’t Work

Diets don’t work. Restricting food intake may initially lead to weight loss, yet 95% of people who lose weight gain it back within 3-5 years.

Most of us would blame our lack of willpower, but dieting is not a matter of self-discipline.

Consider: how many different diets have you followed? How many times have you reduced your calories; fasted; or avoided whole food groups such as the currently demonised carbohydrates? If any of these diets worked, we would only need one.

Dieting becomes increasingly ineffective every time we embark upon a new nutrition plan. The irony is that intentional weight loss methods actually teach our bodies how to gain weight.

REASON WHY DIETS DON’T WORK #1: PHYSICAL RESTRICTION

Restricting calories or excluding food groups essentially puts our bodies into a state of starvation or malnutrition. Our bodies therefore respond as if there is a famine and make physiological adaptations to keep us alive.

These adaptations include increasing hunger and cravings which lead us to seek out and eat more food, especially those high in carbohydrates. This is owing to hormonal changes brought about by the period of starvation: when it is energy deprived, the brain increases production of the chemical Neuropeptide Y which drives us to consume energy dense carbohydrates.

In addition, reducing body fat through dieting leads to decreased levels of the hormone leptin, which helps us to feel full. Under normal circumstances fat stores release leptin into the bloodstream which informs the body that energy stores are available and signals us to eat less. As we lose body fat, however, leptin levels fall. This leads to increased appetite, particularly for sweet, high energy foods.

Restriction of calorie intake by dieting lowers our metabolism

Constant restriction of calorie intake by dieting also lowers our metabolism: this is a physical adaptation that ensures we will be able to survive on a smaller amount of food. The more body weight we lose, the fewer calories we need to consume, therefore we need to restrict more and more as weight loss continues.

Our bodies also increase our set point weight as insurance against future famine. This set point is a genetically determined range of 10-15lbs where our bodies are most comfortable. If we drop under our set point weight by restricting food, the body responds and works like a thermostat to adjust metabolism and hormone levels until our weight returns to this stable point.

If we repeatedly engage in dieting, we can actually push our set point weight up. This is because the body’s metabolic condition changes when we restrict our food intake. We cannot lower your set point weight, but it is possible to raise it…by dieting.

REASON WHY DIETS DON’T WORK #2: MENTAL RESTRICTION

Mental restriction such as implementing food rules, categorising foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and forbidding foods that we enjoy such as pizza or chocolate also leads to weight gain.

This is because depriving ourselves of these foods drives up cravings and therefore we end up overeating the very foods we are trying to avoid. Likewise, if we resolve to start a new diet tomorrow, then today we will probably go into ‘last supper mode’ and frantically eat everything in sight because this is our last chance before the food restrictions are in place.

Only permitting ourselves a certain amount of daily calories may also cause the number on the scale to creep up. This is because when we restrict our food intake, we are telling our brains that there is no more food.

This causes the brain to panic and consequently increase our urge to overeat or binge. In this way, we up eating more calories overall than if we hadn’t restricted our daily intake in the first place.

After a binge, we experience guilt or shame and resolve to diet even harder

Our body’s responses to physical and mental restriction are survival mechanisms that lead us to eat, and eat a lot. Afterwards, we may experience guilt or shame and resolve to diet even harder. This only serves to perpetuate the binge / restrict cycle, and each time we go through it the restriction becomes tighter and the binges become more extreme.

This constant cycling (or yo yo dieting) places the body in a chronic state of stress. The body reacts to this stress in several ways, one of which is that the adrenal glands produce the hormone cortisol. Cortisol increases appetite and causes cravings for sugary foods, which are then stored as fat.

Restriction is therefore the fastest way to gain weight and permanently increase our set point weight

The fundamental message is that we cannot control our weight long term. It is impossible to sustainably fight against our biological instincts. It’s just like breathing: we can hold our breath for a little while, but at some point, we are going to have to breathe.

We need to reject the diet mentality and throw away our meal plans. If we truly allow ourselves to eat without deprivation or restriction, the drive to seek out excessive amounts of food subsides as our bodies and brains learn that the famine is finally over.

We need to embrace food freedom, allow ourselves all foods, and trust that our bodies know what to do.

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.

Categories
Body Image Dieting Exercise Fitness Competitions

The Perfect Body Illusion

CW: details of disordered eating behaviours.

Do you wish you look like the girl in the magazine? I will let you in on a secret…the girl in the magazine doesn’t even look like that.


I know: I have been that girl.


Representations of the ‘perfect’ female body are pervasive throughout modern society, consolidated and perpetuated by an omnipresent mass media. Online, this ideal can be found on a variety of platforms ranging from YouTube workout videos, to the image-laden Instagram. We are constantly bombarded with these ‘inspirational’ bodies which, thanks to our smartphones, can be viewed any time, anywhere.

Frequent exposure to these ideals places women at risk of developing a negative body image

In today’s hyper-saturated image culture, this aesthetic ideal is extremely powerful; and its prolific distribution serves to reinforce our obsession with physical appearance. Studies suggest that frequent exposure to these ideals places women, particularly adolescent females, at risk of developing a negative body image. Comparing ourselves to these blemish-free, sculpted physiques can cause dissatisfaction and contribute to low self-esteem.

In a study carried out in 2019, over 45 per cent of adolescents were found to be moderately or strongly influenced by media images of idealised bodies. Comparison with these images often encourages weight preoccupation, and ultimately leads to disordered eating as we attempt to replicate the ‘ideal’ body.


This body, however, is far from real.


In 2013, I entered the aesthetics-driven world of fitness competitions. I would like to say that I was motivated to compete by my love of weight lifting, or that it was because of my competitive personality. In reality, I was seduced by the glamour. For me, fitness competitors were beauty queens with muscle. They shone (literally in their diamante stage bikinis), emanating strength and confidence. Whatever they had, I wanted to have it; whatever they were, I wanted to be it.


So I signed up for my first show, and in doing so, was awarded membership to that elite group of dazzling women. Like them, I stood onstage under the spotlights while photographers immortalised my lean, muscular, and somewhat orange physique in a flurry of shots.


Afterwards, when I shared the images online, my friends and family remarked how different I looked onstage. In particular, they commented on how tall I appeared (in real life, I measure a petite 5 feet 2 inches). Creating the appearance of height, however, is only one of countless illusions that can be produced using the art of photography.


With technological methods such as digital enhancement and airbrushing, it is possible to mask imperfections and homogenize skin tone. Abdominal muscles can be made to appear more defined by increasing contrast and deepening shadows; and the body’s silhouette can be adjusted by tightening the waist and enlarging ‘desirable’ curves such as a woman’s bust and glutes.

Models often go to extreme lengths to ensure that their bodies are photo perfect


This photographic illusion is also reinforced by the models themselves, who will often go to extreme lengths to ensure that their bodies are photo perfect. I always book a photoshoot for the week leading up to a competition, beginning gruelling preparations two months in advance.

This is when I exchange body building for sculpting; stripping away soft flesh to uncover the goddess-like form that waits beneath in all its defined, curvaceous glory.

This preparation requires meticulous planning. Calories are decreased, carbohydrates are cycled, and macronutrients are precisely calculated. I have a freezer full of turkey and tilapia; and cupboards stocked with pink salt and calorie-free condiments in order to survive the weeks of no sugar and no sauce. Food is green or white.


I prepare my meals in advance and, being too hungry to wait 5 minutes while they reheat, eat them cold straight from their Tupperware tub. I scrape pans and lick spoons, desperate to devour every last morsel of food. Attempting to alleviate hunger pangs, I incessantly chew gum, go to bed at 9pm and chain drink black Americanos until my hands are shaking.

This type of severe diet and the constant hunger makes me highly irritable, dizzy and exhausted, all of which are exacerbated by my intensive weight lifting regime.

Yet it is all worth it when my obliques begin to emerge, and my muscles become separated. At this stage I am vascular and incredibly lean, and my body is ready to be photographed.


On the morning of the shoot, I then spend hours spraying dark tan, applying heavy make up, and vigorously backcombing my hair. After squeezing into a pair of tiny hot pants and a luminous sports bra, I pump up my muscles to create optimum definition.

Once the lighting and backdrop has been ideally positioned, all that remains is to painfully angle my body to its best advantage, suck in my stomach, and smile.

After the photographer has captured sufficient material, I am free to slump over the wash basin, where I attempt to rid myself of both her stage make up, and the blinding headache brought on by lack of food and water.

Photoshop masks and blends imperfections

As my face and body are returned to normal at the sink, my image is becoming increasingly abnormal as the photographer works on digitally enhancing the raw shots. Photoshop masks and blends imperfections and homogenizes skin tone. Abdominal muscles become more defined as contrast is increased and shadows are deepened. Morphing alters the body’s silhouette by tightening the waist and enlarging desirable bikini body features, such as the chest and glutes.

The potential harm of this kind of image manipulation, however, lies not in the enhancement itself, but in the photograph’s final presentation. Despite being overly styled and digitally altered, such bodies are frequently portrayed as ‘normal’ in the mass media. The constant stream of these images on Facebook, Instagram and elsewhere can therefore distort our perception of what is normal and attainable.

Most ‘perfect’ pictures on social media are often staged, well lit, strategically posed, and digitally manipulated


It is common practice for us to add a flattering filter, display our best angles, or even change our faces into cats before posting a photograph of ourselves online. This can be fun, or even reassuring if we are not feeling confident about our appearance on a particular day. The danger, however, lies in forgetting that most ‘perfect’ pictures on social media are not candid: they are often staged, well lit, strategically posed, and digitally manipulated.


When I find myself scrolling through old fitness photographs feeling envious of my leaner, more muscular physique, I try to remind myself that the body in the pictures was never truly real. On the day, I was starving, uncomfortable, and had a splitting headache brought on by lack of food and water.


If, like me, you sometimes brood over pictures when you thought you looked ‘better’; or compare yourself to the seemingly flawless models on Instagram, please remember that this perfect body does not exist…it is merely an ILLUSION.


Note: all images in this article are of myself during my competition and fitness modelling career