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 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
Dieting Eating Disorders Fitness Competitions

How Dieting Leads To Eating Disorders

Fitness Competitions and The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

CW: details of eating disordered behaviours.

Restricting food intake is the number one cause of eating disorders. NEDA reports that ‘35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting and that 20-25% of those individuals develop eating disorders.1

But why is this the case?

In 1944, a study was conducted that documented the effects of following a restrictive diet. This was the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Led by Dr Ancel Keys, a team of researchers set out to find the most effective methods of rehabilitation for the millions of people who experienced starvation during the Second World War.

They did this by restricting the diets of 36 young, healthy, male volunteers for a period of 6 months.

The study found that externally induced starvation led to various psychological and physiological changes. These changes are typical of what might occur when we engage in extreme or chronic dieting.

As a former Pro Bikini Competitor, I experienced similar effects when severely reducing my calorie intake in preparation for the stage. This eventually led to a full blown relapse into anorexia nervosa.

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment was in three parts:

  1. 3 month control phase, during which the men ate normally
  2. 6 months of semi-starvation
  3. 3 months of re-feeding

During the first stage, the daily calorie intake was approximately 3500kcal. This was then halved to 1570kcal in the second, semi-starvation phase.

Likewise, achieving the lean competition physique involves being in a calorie deficit for a long period of time. For the average woman, the recommended daily intake is 2000kcal.2 When preparing for a competition, however, this can drop almost to 1000kcal. This is the figure established by The World Health Organization as ‘the border of semi-starvation.’3

The Minnesota Experiment’s protocol required participants to lose 25% of their body weight during the process (an average of 37lbs.)4 This meant sustaining a weekly weight loss of approximately 2.5lb.

Aside from obvious external indicators such as sunken faces and protruding ribs, the men experienced:

  • decreases in body temperature
  • low blood pressure
  • anaemia
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • decreased heart rate
  • decreased metabolic functioning.

The lean stage physique is essentially in a state of chronic malnutrition

These symptoms can also arise when preparing for a fitness competition. Striving to attain the extreme aesthetic requirements causes various physical afflictions. These closely resemble the symptoms of starvation since the lean stage physique is essentially in a state of chronic malnutrition.

This produces dysfunctions that affect multiple organs within the cardiovascular, gastro intestinal, endocrine, skeletal, and central nervous systems.5

As well as causing physical illness, reduced caloric intake also leads to psychological depletion. The Minnesota men experienced various neurological deficits: lack of concentration anxiety, irritability and depression. Depressive episodes are both a physiological result of reduced dietary energy intake, and a psychological response to constantly fighting hunger.

Participants were also fanatically preoccupied with food: it was the principal topic of conversation and the subject of their dreams. They collected menus and cookery books; and some even expressed a desire to become chefs after the experiment had ended.

This obsession is also true of competitors. My fellow bikini models and I constantly talked of and thought about food: comparing our meals, watching food channels, and compulsively starring at ‘forbidden’ food items in the supermarket.

A common symptom of calorie restriction is heightened cravings


A common symptom of calorie restriction experienced by both study participants and competitors is heightened cravings. As with food obsession, cravings are survival mechanisms that ensure that the starving individual seeks out nutrition. In the fitness world, cravings are typically for carbohydrates such as doughnuts, chips and ice cream.

Following the semi-starvation phase, the men underwent 3 months of restricted rehabilitation where their daily rations were incrementally increased to 3200kcal. Their extreme hunger did not abate, however. According to Dr Keys, this was because the calorie increase was still not sufficient ‘to allow tissues destroyed during starvation to be rebuilt.’6

Finally, there was an eight-week period during which there were no limits on food intake, during which the men would often binge on 8000-10,000kcal a day. As a result, they frequently vomited after meals and one was admitted to hospital to have his stomach pumped.

Extreme hunger, known as hyperphagia, is typical of anorexia recovery


This extreme huger, known as hyperphagia, is also typical of anorexia recovery. It is the result of the body’s attempt not only to restore weight, but also to repair the physical damage that has occurred during starvation. Throughout my own recovery, I had frequent binges where I could easily consume a frightening 10,000kcal in one sitting and still not be satisfied. You can find a detailed account of my own experiences in Hanging Up The Bikini: Why I Quit Fitness Competitions.

Despite having no previous history of eating disorders, participants continued to be preoccupied with food, binge eating or restricting their calorie intake long after the study had ended.

Like the starvation imposed upon the men in this study, the extreme diet required for a competition can lead to obsessive and destructive food-related behaviours for women who have no previous histories of disorderly eating.

Eating disorders can be created just by dieting

The experiment revealed that malnutrition itself causes these symptoms: eating disorders can be created just by depriving the body of food through dieting.

This means that many, including myself, have hung up their sequinned bikinis. Like the Minnesota men, we have found starvation too damaging to our psychological and physical well-being.


  1. http://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/treatment-for-eating-disorders/special-issues/dieting
  2. http://www.nhs.uk/chq/pages/1126.aspx?categoryid=51
  3. Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, ed. by Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, Susan C. Wooley (The Guilford Press: London, 1994), p.8 ‘From Too “Close to the Bone”: The Historical Context for Women’s Obsession with Slenderness’, Roberta P. Seid
  4. http://www.seven-health.com/2013/08/controlling-weight-part-2/
  5. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/89260-overview#a0101
  6. https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/135/6/1347/4663828

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