Bodybuilding: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Just days after placing fourth at my first national level bodybuilding competition, I was at war with myself. I had trained for nearly nine months, six days a week, anywhere from 2 to 4 hours a day to achieve a professional title. I came just two placings short, and I was eager to compete again—until I finally acknowledged some unhealthy signs and symptoms I was dealing with: food obsessions, excessive exercising, and negative body image.
I'm one of many bodybuilding competitors in the contemporary fitness industry. Fitness enthusiasts around the world often idolize six packs, dark spray tans, and sparkly bikinis. Health and fitness tends to be identified and classified by external features, however, the muscles are contradictory to what the industry is actually representing.
They say “you are what you eat,” which is a surprising epitome within the industry. Many bodybuilders, including myself, often let food define them. The process of weighing out every meal and being incredibly cognizant of every bite of food that I put in my mouth led me to develop a bad relationship with food. I was starting to hate food because of the way it impacted the way I looked and thought. This is termed as disordered eating, which happens to be very prevalent in the bodybuilding industry according to Laurin Conlin, a professional bikini competitor and MS in Exercise Science.
Food controlled me. All of a sudden food was termed as “good” and “bad.” Why in the world would a piece of fruit or even broccoli become a “bad” food to eat? In bodybuilding fruits, for example, are shunned for being too high in sugar. Even some vegetables are off limits for having too high of a carbohydrate content. In reality, fruits and vegetables are filled with vitamins and minerals that are essential to a healthy life. These are just two out of the hundreds of examples of foods that are frowned upon as a bodybuilder. In simpler terms, foods are labeled “bad” for you because they affect your external appearance, therefore affecting your stage presence. As I got deeper into the sport, my diet got stricter. Pretty soon, all I was consuming was 4 ounces of tilapia and a handful of asparagus four times a day.
Bodybuilding is not only the process of building your body but your mind too. A certain level of mental toughness is necessary to achieve success in the industry. I soon became mindful of the abnormal habits I was adopting and the toll the sport began to take on my social life. I avoided the temptation of “bad” foods by excluding myself from all possible social settings. Rather than having to be the “boring friend” and say “no” to even a bite of food at a social gathering, I preferred to just stay home. I was in complete seclusion and this fueled a wildfire.
In my free time, all I wanted to do was eat. I was constantly hungry. Rather than fueling my body the way it wanted, I was constantly fighting the voice in the back of my head telling me things like “if you take even one bite of that cookie, you’ll be screwed.”
This is when the binge eating and extreme body dysmorphia began. From stepping on stage at five percent body fat, to gaining twenty (healthy) pounds on the scale, I still constantly struggle with viewing myself as “fat” or “out-of-shape,” which is typically known as body dysmorphia. BioMedCentral found in a recent study, that bodybuilders should be more aware of the increased risk of developing eating and body image disorders in aesthetic sports.
After being on such a strict diet for so long, all I wanted to do was eat. And oh, did I eat. And eat and eat and eat. Anything from cookies, candy, French fries, and foods I didn’t even necessarily like were being vacuumed into my body. After dieting for so long with minimal food, I felt guilty for eating so much, even when my food was what many would view as “normal”.
Binge eating is “an eating disorder in which you frequently consume unusually large amounts of food and feel unable to stop eating,” according to the Mayo Clinic. There were several times after competing where I would overeat, without even being hungry. I began to associate myself with binge eating disorder as well as bulimia disorder tendencies. I would eat a cookie, then immediately feel guilty and go to the gym for an hour of intense cardio. I was stuck in a constant cycle “burning off the binge”.
The training and diet regimen put a restriction on my life and restricted my thought processes as well. I could not break down the mental barriers I was facing without completely taking a step back from competing.
As I am on a break from bodybuilding, I do still find myself in a rocky relationship with food as well as occasional binges. I look at myself in the mirror some days and still see “fat,” but I am working on my self-confidence daily.
One may think— “Why would you ever want to put yourself through that again?” Which, yes, I do. I love being a natural athlete and working hard for what I want. I love the internal process just as much, if not more than, the aesthetics. I will step on that stage again, in Summer of 2018. I will be conscientious of the little things I know now.
Bodybuilding has changed my life for the better, but it has also come with some negative repercussions. Everyone’s journey is different. My journey led me to a feeling of seclusion—caged up inside my own mind. But with that, I was able to learn a lot about myself and come to a realization about bad habits I allowed to happen. Mentally, I had become unhealthy. And without full mental capacity, the physical will never be fulfilled. I am not creating a strike against bodybuilding, however, it is essential to focus on internal health first, rather than just chasing after the aesthetics.