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
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

Paying To Be Perfect

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

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

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

Beauty, fitness and diet industries target our insecurities

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

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

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

These industries profit from selling bodily insecurity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are led to believe that we are perfectible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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