An increasing number of fitness professionals, including personal trainers, nutritionists and sponsored athletes are starting to display worrying trends when it comes to their attitudes towards food. Many are suffering from food aversion and dietary obsession, including starving, purging and binging, as well as introversion and the withdrawal from social situations where food consumption may play a role.
One of the key contributing factors to the onset of eating pathology and mental health disorders is the individuals’ dissatisfaction with the perception of their own body.
Clinical research has shown that the drivers which contribute towards our body image perception are: peer appearance, conversations and criticism, internalisation of appearance ideals, and our own height and weight[ii].
In the fitness industry we are bombarded with images of scantily clad, muscular competitors from both male and female gender every time we turn on our computers or our phones. Pictures, videos, snap chats, instagram, twitter feeds and facebook news bulletins are all bristling with toned, tanned and tight, photo-shopped depictions of the people that we are all striving to be. Or even worse, pictures of ourselves in stage condition when the current us is 5kg over that weight, feeling like a shadow of our former ‘perfect’ self.
Recent studies highlighted that the majority of research into disordered eating has centred on the drive for thinness, which is most commonly observed in girls and women[iii], so have we as a society inadvertently pigeonholed eating disorders as only being applicable if the subject looks like they are about to die?
Studies into normal anorexia sufferers found that the influence of the media portrayal of idealized mainstream female bodies in women's fashion magazines found that women overestimated their own perceived “fatness” further after they had seen pictures of runway models, as opposed to when they saw photographs of neutral objects[iv].
However, if it was the case that runway model images invoked an emotional response in fitness athletes, then these athletes would be motivated by the drive for thinness not the drive for muscularity?
A study found that social standards dictate that male attractiveness is measured in muscularity, not thinness, and thus those males seeking to attain muscularity and perceiving to have not achieved this aesthetic were far more likely to display disordered eating and signs of depression[v].
It is therefore the likely and probable result of the public and social swing in female idealism, shifting from runway-model thin to an almost impossible image of healthy, lean and shredded female muscularity that has played a part in the rise of a new sort of fitness related eating disorder, created by images of our fitness peers.
There is also a subtle but crucial differentiation which has been identified between bodyweight dissatisfaction and muscularity dissatisfaction. Muscularity dissatisfaction has been found to be more prevalent among men who frequently engage in muscle-building or fitness related conversations and when the bodyfat percentage is lower. Females or males with a higher bodyfat % reading are less likely to be dissatisfied with their musculature and are more likely to be concerned with bodyweight and bodyfat issues[vi].
Interestingly what we may find is that as bodyweight drops through disordered eating or purging; competitors will shift from bodyweight dissatisfaction to muscular size dissatisfaction and back again as they bulk to attempt to gain muscle.
Strangely, most female fitness competitors all display a desire to be bigger, more muscular and more defined – this is in stark contrast to medical research into classic eating disorders – for example in a study by Silberstein et al, they found that only 4.4% of the women they studied wanted to become bigger compared with 46.8% of the men.
This suggests that female fitness competitors are more likely to have disordered eating that relates to their bodyfat but that allows for the retention of muscle – this is backed up by studies showing that those who exercise with weights or in bodybuilding are a subpopulation at greatly increased risk of developing eating disorders[vii].
Overall the competitive fitness population seems to be overly concerned with food, overly concerned with weight, body fat and muscularity and is a western phenomena perpetuated by the pursuit of the perfect body – the fitness societies and federations encourage and reward the pursuit of the perfect body because it is an ideal that symbolizes the attainment of numerous personal virtues and achievements.
To summarise: Are fitness competitors becoming the unrecognised victims of wide-spread disordered eating and depression caused by body dissatisfaction?
Written by: Georgia B Simmons
REFERENCES: [i] Journal of Youth and Adolescence January 2011, Volume 40, Issue 1, pp 59-71, ‘Body Dissatisfaction Among Adolescent Boys and Girls: The Effects of Body Mass, Peer Appearance Culture and Internalization of Appearance Ideals’, Margaret Lawler, Elizabeth Nixon [ii] Margaret Lawler, Elizabeth Nixon [iii] Journal of American College Health, Volume 48, Issue 6, 2000 , ‘An Exploration of the Drive for Muscularity in Adolescent Boys and Girls’, Donald R. McCreary PhD & Doris K. Sasse PhD [iv] The British Journal of Psychiatry (1993) 162: 837-840, ‘Media influences on body size estimation in anorexia and bulimia. An experimental study’, K Hamilton , G Waller [v] Donald R. McCreary PhD & Doris K. Sasse PhD [vi] Journal of Youth and Adolescence, December 2005, Volume 34, Issue 6, pp 629-636, ‘Adolescent Boys and Body Image: Weight and Muscularity Concerns as Dual Pathways to Body Dissatisfaction’, Diane Carlson Jones, Joy K. Crawford [vii] Franco et al (1988) [viii] Brownell, K. D. (1991). Dieting and the search for the perfect body: Where physiology and culture collide. Behaviour Therapy, 22, 1–12.