This isn’t the first time I’ve written about body image, and Lord knows it probably won’t be the last. I came across this article on Breaking Muscle earlier, and it really resonated with me. Health is a noble and worthy pursuit – but so often, health becomes the scapegoat for pursuing what is, at its core, simply vanity or an effort to fix something we have deemed broken about ourselves.
Believing that altering our outward appearance is the solution to all of our problems in life is what keeps cosmetic surgery on the rise and disordered eating prevalent. Having competed in figure and bikini competitions, I’m all too familiar with the completely consuming nature of it. Every gram of food, every minute of cardio, every ounce of water, every rep in the gym – these things take on colossal significance. And it’s not about health or balance – it’s about skewing your entire life’s purpose for months at a time toward achieving a certain look so you can then be subjectively judged by strangers as to whether you are aesthetically pleasing enough to win a prize.
Back when I was competing, I didn’t see it this way. For me, it was an exercise in self-discipline, in proving to myself that I was capable of undertaking something difficult and seeing a goal through to the end. It was about pushing my limits, physically and mentally. But you know what else it was about? Being hot. Getting attention. Receiving praise and admiration. Trying to make peace with a body I never felt was good enough.
I suspect that body image and self-esteem issues are what lead a lot of competitors into the physique world. Any sport or competitive activity where aesthetics are highly valued (ballet, gymnastics, bodybuilding – all 3 of which I’ve participated in) is more highly correlated with eating disorders than sports that don’t place as much emphasis on how an athlete looks (source). Anecdotally, based on conversations with many current and former physique competitors, many women who have a history of disordered eating/body image issues often seem to find themselves competing in physique.
In my unqualified opinion, women with disordered eating end up in physique competitions because it gives them a more socially acceptable outlet for their pathological behavior. They can still obsess over their food and weigh and measure and count. They can still do hours and hours of exercise per day. They can still record all of their calories burned and eaten. They can still closely monitor their weight and body fat percentage. They can still pursue an excessive degree of leanness. But it’s no longer obviously a disease that’s driving them to do these things, it’s now under the guise of showing discipline and commitment to this health/fitness-related goal. However, I have a hard time seeing the distinction.
It’s not my intention to villainize physique competitors. And there are people who do not compete who still engage in the behaviors I’ve described above. There are also some out there who somehow manage to lead a balanced life and maintain a healthy perspective of their self-worth and purpose in the midst of competing in physique. I was not one of those people, which is why I no longer compete.
In hindsight, I think about how many hours and days and weeks I put into meal prep, cardio, lifting weights, and practicing posing, and I think about the multitude of superior ways I could have spent that time – spending time with friends and loved ones, volunteering in the community, meeting new people and experiencing new things. I often find myself looking at the daily selfies taken in the locker room by current competitors and think to myself, “I wonder what amazing things would happen if this person invested as much time in becoming a loving, generous, informed, and compassionate human being as they do in “dialing in that six pack’ and ‘making those delts pop.'”