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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 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)