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 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 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 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