Bodybuilding - The Glorified Eating Disorder

Trigger warning: Pictures / weight and dieting talk / etc.

I don’t include my pictures for “thinspo”/”fitspo” purposes. They are here because that’s who I am. I want you to see that there’s a price to pay for looking like that, and it’s not just an acute compromise to your health. It’s a life of questioning your self-worth because of the way your body looks.

Imagine someone comes to you and tells you this:

“I’ve lost a ton of weight in the past 10 weeks.  I’ve been restricting my calories really heavily, I’ve stopped spending time with friends, I do 10 hours of cardio a week on top of heavy training days, and I almost consume more prescription stimulants than I do food.  I weigh myself daily, and if the number is 0.2 lbs higher than yesterday, my entire day is ruined. I obsess over all this lower stomach fat I’m holding --” *proceeds to pinch a tight skinfold where virtually no fat is present* “-- and I fantasize all day about the tasty foods I want to eat.  I’m constantly exhausted, my speech has slowed down, I get super cold even out in the heat, and I have these dark purple bags developing under my eyes.”

You take a deep breath, getting ready to tell them you’re concerned and that you know a great therapist that--

“Oh yeah, it’s for a bodybuilding show I’m doing next month! Man, prep is killer, I’m tellin ya.”

Oh, never mind, everything’s fine! This is just how bodybuilders diet, no problems here.

The double-standard: Why does bodybuilding get a pass?

You might be thinking, “What? Bodybuilding or not, that’s not healthy.  Who would dismiss that?”

It felt amazing to have worked so hard to achieve this, but it felt equally terrifying to realize I  needed  to look like this just to value myself. What you’re seeing here is not healthy, it’s not enjoyable, and it’s not worth it. This is not an attack “on bodybuilders.” It’s an attack “on bodybuilding.”

It felt amazing to have worked so hard to achieve this, but it felt equally terrifying to realize I needed to look like this just to value myself. What you’re seeing here is not healthy, it’s not enjoyable, and it’s not worth it. This is not an attack “on bodybuilders.” It’s an attack “on bodybuilding.”

And yet, as you might have guessed, this is not just some theoretical thought experiment.  That list of symptoms didn’t come out of thin air. Those were all things I was going through just 3 years ago.  

I was vocal about it to others, but I played it off as “the life of a bodybuilder,” and subsequently none of my listeners ever expressed worry.  Moreover, seemingly everyone I spoke to praised the behaviors.

“Wow, I wish I could lose weight like that!”

“Oh man, I can’t even imagine how hard that must be, nice going!”

“How do you have so much self-control?”

Oh boy, there those sneaky little words are.  “Self-control,” the most useless and damaging term we’ve let permeate the world of nutrition. I’ll touch on that again shortly, but first let me put in plain English what my point is here.

The sport of bodybuilding (and physique contests as a whole) doesn’t just glorify eating disorders; it is itself an eating disorder.

The most dangerous part of it all is that element of praise we discussed.  Ever since leaving the world of bodybuilding behind, and now having experience in working with and treating eating disorder victims, it’s all so apparent, and it’s sad to watch.

You can hear it in the way bodybuilders and physique competitors talk during contest prep.  You can pick it up in their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. You can see it in the way they eat and the way they look at their body in the mirror (almost as if they’re looking at a different person, someone they want to get along with but can’t).  

And you can see it in the questions they ask on the respective forums:

“Help, I just binged on brown rice! How do I fix this in time and get back on track? I’ve been chugging gallons of water and it’s not working!”

“Does anyone else obsess over those last remaining areas of fat?? I’ve been dieting way harder than last time but still don’t have those striated glutes.”

“How much cardio can you do at the end of prep? My calories are super low and I have nothing else to take from.  Is 4 hours a day overkill?”

Photo credit: Flickr user Ray Harkness

Photo credit: Flickr user Ray Harkness

*These are just made-up examples, but I’ve read through enough forum entries to know the kinds of questions people ask.*

If you didn’t know any better (or are skipping around in this blog post), you’d think these were taken straight from a proana site.

So that’s why this is so pressing.  With over 250 bodybuilding competitions held each year, each hosting an abundance of competitors, this is a segment of the population not factored into eating disorder statistics.  This is a group that will not only be given a pass for their heavily disordered behaviors but that will actually be praised and encouraged.

So all bodybuilders have an eating disorder?

While I want to be diplomatic and avoid rocking the boat, I can’t in good faith put an asterisk on this one.  The reality is that, like I’ve said before, disordered eating exists on a continuum.  

There is no neat little group of “intuitive eaters” contrasted to an equally organized group of “eating disorder victims.”  You aren’t either perfectly in touch with your hunger and fullness or else purging twice a day and severely underweight.

This is especially the case in this society where diet culture and body hatred are revered, while mental health is patted on the head and then quickly pushed out of sight.  

So many of us deal with chronic, low-grade levels of food anxiety or body dysmorphia or diet obsession or exercise compulsion. It’s become so rampant that we’ve become accustomed to it in our interactions and ignorant of it in ourselves.  

Comments like “I ate like a pig today!” and “God, I look huge in those pictures; I need to cut back” are commonplace.  And having conducted many, many intakes with general population nutrition clients myself, I’ve seen firsthand how pervasive this culture of self-deprecation really is.

“Contest prep” and “Disordered eating” are synonymous

NOT ME  …Photo credit: Flickr user istolethetv

NOT ME …Photo credit: Flickr user istolethetv

So, to come back to the question at hand, does every physique contest athlete have an eating disorder? Well, they certainly all - by definition - are disordered eaters.  The reality is that the dietary and exercise practices that physique competitions call for is unhealthy from a physical, mental, and emotional standpoint.  This world breeds body hatred and diet glorification.  And it’s damn good at it, too.

Before I first competed, I had never hated my body.  I maybe had some body dissatisfaction, if you will, but it wasn’t until after my first show and the precedent that set in place that I experienced “see myself in the mirror and hysterically cry” body dissatisfaction.  You see what I mean?

Now, to be sure, some are most certainly impacted by this more than others.  But nobody, I don’t care what they tell you, nobody sees themselves at sub-6% bodyfat (sub-14% or so for women) and goes back to normal.  

To put it one way, becoming that lean sets a psychological precedent that proceeds to compare all future body composition states as horribly inadequate or “fat.”  To put it another way, that shit will fuck you up.

That all leads to the answers I’ll give to the two most common questions I’m asked about this:

  1. Do you regret competing in bodybuilding?

    Not at all.  While it might sound contrary to everything I’ve just said, no, I don’t regret it at all.  In fact, I’m grateful I did.  Bodybuilding was my gateway into the academic world of nutrition.  It taught me a ton about the human body, practical nutrition, and work capacity (both mental and physical).  

    But more important than any of that is the fact that bodybuilding gave me the greatest gift I could have ever asked for: my eating disorder.

    It was because of my intense struggle with binge eating, body hatred, and stimulant abuse that my eyes were opened to this community, and to those suffering through eating disorders.  I got to witness this firsthand and, through experience and research, learn that recovery is possible.

    So many of us exist quietly within our food prisons and metabolically desecrated bodies, but it doesn’t have to be this way.  I now get to live each day with this unbreakable resolve and purpose, knowing exactly what needs to be done.

  2. Do you plan on ever competing again?

The short is answer is “no.”  The long answer is “noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.” :)

Okay, okay, but seriously.

Lest this article leaves a bad taste in anyone’s mouth who I met through the world of bodybuilding, let me make one thing clear:  

Photo credit: Flickr user istolethetv

Photo credit: Flickr user istolethetv

I hold absolutely no ill will for anyone who likes the sport of bodybuilding or is actively involved in it.

I recognize this might be seen as an outlandish stance, and if you’re reading this right now and disagree vehemently with me, that’s fine! I’m not here to pour cynicism down your throat or be edgy for the sake of being edgy.  

Feel free to contact me and let me know where you disagree so we can add some information to what the authors of Crucial Conversations call the Pool of Shared Meaning.

Where does this leave you?

Here are some to-the-point takeaways for you, depending on who you are and why you clicked on this article in the first place.

Are you thinking of competing yourself?

Photo credit: Flickr user Ella Olsson

Photo credit: Flickr user Ella Olsson

If you’ve never competed in a physique competition yourself and have interest in competing in one, I ask that you first just take inventory of your motivations and expected outcomes:

  • Why do you want to compete? Go deeper than just “I want to prove to myself I can do it” or “Some friends at my gym are doing a show, and I wanted to join them.”  Go through the 5 Whys exercise, and keep digging until you strike gold.  You’ll know it when you arrive at an answer you weren’t expecting that catches you off guard.

  • What are you expecting will come of it? Again, go deeper than just “I might get second place” or “I’ll have contest pictures to share on Facebook.”  Ask yourself what long-term consequences this could have.

  • If you’re interested, read/watch my story.  It’s a pretty detailed look into the not-so-fun sides of competitive bodybuilding.

Are you worried about a loved one or friend who’s [interested in] competing?

Maybe you read through this because you actually did have some concern after hearing a sentiment similar to the one I started this post with.  Maybe a family member, significant other, or friend is interested in, or actively preparing for, a bodybuilding competition.  How do you approach this?

This is sticky.  I’ve been confronted with this before on many occasions and have come to realize the best approach is the supportive and compassionate one.  Don’t aggress but also don’t avoid. If the show is a sure thing and is coming up soon, it might just add unnecessary stress to make an issue of it at this point.  

If there’s a lot of time still, or if it’s still just a thought in their mind and not a planned thing, use this opportunity to tell them - in a way that’s comfortable to you - your thoughts.  You could even use me as your scapegoat!

“I read this article about some of the dark sides of bodybuilding contest prep, and I’m kind of worried.”  

Don’t frame it as an accusatory remark and don’t expect a certain answer. If they’re dead set on it, let it be and just offer your continued support throughout.  

The last thing you want is for this person to perceive an antagonistic vibe from you regarding this topic and then not feel comfortable discussing it with you when they otherwise might have.  When in doubt, overwhelm them with compassion and thoughtfulness, such that they know you’re a safe, non-judging source of support they can open up to about this.

Or, don’t bring it up! Use your best judgment on this one.  Like I said earlier, although I maintain that engaging in competitive bodybuilding means engaging in an eating disorder, not everyone will be affected by this equally.  But still continue to offer support in a non-pushy way.

Are you just a fellow advocate of body-positivity and the anti-dieting approach, and you want to know what you can do to help?

If this is you, then what probably stood out to you most was the realization of this “hidden sect” of eating disorder victims that is the physique competition world.  This is a group that includes:

  • Some people who desperately want help but feel trapped and like their experiences aren’t validated…

  • Some people who are struggling but still are not fully aware of how disordered their eating behaviors are…

  • Some people in complete denial of it all (or just not suffering from it as much as others who therefore have an easier time suppressing it)…

To reach them and help show them the light of the anti-dieting movement, the key is to focus on compassion and care.  You encourage someone to leave a judgmental, unforgiving environment by showcasing a non-judgmental, forgiving one.

Don’t specifically seek them out by “infiltrating” the community, or anything like that.  I’m of the firm belief that, for anyone in the helping profession like myself, your energy is best devoted to helping those who are past the precontemplation stage of change.  It’s wasted energy to try and be a hero who “rescues” those who are deeply entrenched in their behaviors.  

That doesn’t mean you can’t help them, but it means it requires using the right avenue.  

For example, all of the patients at the treatment center I work at are pretty deep into their ED behaviors and mindsets.  It would help no one for me to try and reach someone at this stage and “save” them on my own, whereas it can make a world of difference to limit my scope appropriately and only work within an organized team effort (i.e. a treatment team).

I don’t bite!

Whether you found yourself violently nodding throughout this article or you spent half the time thinking about the hate mail you’re going to send me, I’d love to hear from you and get your thoughts on this.  

My say on these matters is obviously not final, and I recognize there are many ways to look at each issue. So let’s contribute to that Pool of Shared Meaning and get a conversation going. You can start by leaving a comment down below or messaging me directly!

And if you’re currently fighting through an eating disorder yourself, and you feel trapped in the cycle, without any hope of recovery…

I’ve got some good news for you.

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This is recovery made simple. 100 days of tasks, habits, exposures, and “Adventures” that are guaranteed to bring you to a place of Food Freedom.

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