We talk a lot about going into the past to learn something that will benefit our future on this blog. We’ve talked about periodization and its effectiveness throughout history, as well as leaders who maximized their success through diet and training. Yet, we haven’t used that knowledge of history to understand the social/psychological aspects of fitness: Especially the dark side.
What is this dark side?
Body Dysmorphia and feelings of apparent physical inferiority are topics we don’t want. This feeling of apparent inadequacy plagues both men and women. You may have heard of “bigorexia’ which is a derivative of Body Dysmorphia Disorder or BDD. It’s the fear of not being ‘big enough’.
Now in this article, we’re going to cover in a general sense, the growing trend of male physical inadequacy. This does include in more severe forms, body dysmorphia. Although bigorexia usually relates to men, the idea of body dysmorphia disorders can just as easily be related to women and to several other issues (including anorexia and bulimia).
- Impact of physical “perfectionism” in history
- Is our intention for going about a fitness lifestyle really “healthy”?
- Re-aligning our intentions from a more positive reference point
For a long time, society has dictated standards of physical beauty. People who are not able to align with those standards (usually the majority) have felt growing insecurities. To be completely devoid of insecurities seems too unrealistic but it isn’t unrealistic to say that there can be high and low levels of them. The high levels of insecurity (body dysmorphia disorder) can be very unhealthy and detrimental to well-being.
Have you ever questioned why you train?
Have you ever wondered how much external influence has shaped you on this road of fitness? Even if it’s for sports performance, we still see cases of binge eating/purging and other eating disorders. Now, weight-class based sports might make it performance-related but is there also an underlying inadequacy brought out by society’s rendition of beauty?
Physical beauty has always been prized as a sign of (unfortunately) good character, trust, and many other positive, abstract traits in people. Many people, including writer, Lynne Luciano in her book Looking Good Male Body Image in Modern America ,make a point about how physical attributes continue to be a sign of actual masculine and feminine character.
Even going back several hundred years to Christian Byzantine politics, we see how influential physical traits are to character. In that realm, facial disfigurement would be a huge blow to a political rival’s reputation. It could significantly hurt a person’s chance of becoming Emperor.
In fact, in Byzantine culture, because the Emperor was a reflection of God’s divine authority, his disfigurement could disqualify him from becoming Emperor. The same is the case with modern politics. Take another example: during their televised debate, John F. Kennedy looked much more appealing than his opponent Richard Nixon. The visual appeal made a difference in the delivery of their respective platforms, as most viewers thought that JFK had won the debate.
Whether its cosmetic-enhancing potions of Ancient Egypt ,or hiding male pattern baldness with large, French wigs, people have hidden behind their apparent, physical shortcomings for thousands of years.
Yet what happens when they go too far?
Kids are pressured to look good. Even with young boys, it’s starting to be revealed, are hiding their physical insecurities because its ‘un-manly’ to even confess to something like that.
There’s this recurring meme online of a guy who’s incredibly well-built but all he can see when he looks at the mirror is the reflection of a very scrawny version of him. He lacks self-awareness through this apparent insecurity.
One of the solicited signs of body dysmorphia and poor body image (describes, Dr. Katharine Phillips in her book, The Broken Mirror), include an incessant desire to put training above everything else, ALL the time. All relationships, opportunities, and experiences are second to training/the gym/working out, etc. This imbalance creates even more dissatisfaction as failures in those other areas of life, become attributed to the person’s lack of physical “beauty”. They start blaming their poor physique for everything.
Awareness of body dysmorphia in the 1800s
Even though we’re only, over the last few decades, coming to terms with its seriousness, BDD and its lesser forms were discovered by psychiatrists as early as the 1800s. Back in the late 1800s, Dr. Enrico Marselli described BDD as an “idea of deformity”.
Marselli said that these people are:
….really miserable; in the middle of his daily routines, conversations, while reading, during meals, in fact everywhere and at anytime, is overcome by the fear of deformity…which may reach a very painful intensity, even to the point of weeping and desperation.
Later in 1930s German terms such as “Schönheitshyochondrie” or ‘beauty hypochondria’ as well as “Hässlichkeitskümmener” or ‘one who is worried about being ugly’ were utilized to describe this body dysmorphia.
The damaging part is where these insecurities, as we mentioned earlier, seep into all aspects of a person’s life. Whether it’s personal, professional, relationships, career success, self-development, or self-esteem, the idea that a person’s lagging physique is a reason for their lack of happiness in other areas of life, is incredibly self-limiting. Much like how anger is self-limiting to athletic performance.
Fortunately we’re also seeing a lot of positivity from other sources of media. Or counter culture. Whether its: people making online videos, podcasting, or blog posts, more people have a voice to share their own experiences. Their voices can provide an outlet for people to find positivity in body ________________________________________________________________________________
Obviously, if a person is experiencing severe disorder-like behaviour, seeing a professional (like a therapist) should definitely be a course of action to consider. ______________________________________________________________
But what if you still have insecurities, even if it’s not necessarily BDD or Bigorexia?
I think it’s all about intention. Competing to improve yourself before competing to smash other people is one area for improvement. This is anecdotal of course, but, personally, you become more competitive when you’re deepest source of motivation is with out-performing your past-self.
Holding that as the main reason for physical training feels healthier. If you have a positive intention that builds your self-esteem and character than even if you start to get stressed about over others, you have a positive reference point to remind you of why you’re doing it. Since this deep conviction is one that’s self-building rather than self-debasing, it builds momentum that can raise self-esteem.
Another idea is something that I learned from Brett Mckay from the Art of Manliness blog. The idea is to use your character strengths as the deepest form of deriving self-satisfaction from.
Character strengths, Brett says, are those strengths that are deepest to your very person. They are those strengths that when exercised, you experience an incredible rush of self-satisfaction, regardless of the medium they are used in.
The reason for trying to derive your level of self-worth from your character strengths rather than your physical abilities is because of their versatility and longevity. Everything you’ve experienced as a person to this point in your life, have developed strengths that in turn describe your character. That way, no matter what happens, no matter what high or low you’re experiencing, you can still exercise and embody these strengths. They are inherently ours and simply possessing them can empower us.
Regardless, extrinsic factors still exist. Why else did Caesar wear a wreath to hides his baldness, or Hannibal wear a wig into battle? Yet trying to derive intrinsic desire to training can help curb the nasty stuff that external influences can have on body image. Especially with social media.
Overcoming the Adonis Complex
In The Adonis Complex, psychiatrists, psychiatrists, Harrison Pope, Katharine Phillips, and Roberto Olivardia summarize their advice on overcoming ordinary body image concerns as:
Don’t buy into the media images around you
The authors point out that men specifically should learn from the lessons of women’s standards of beauty and adapt in a likewise manner: “Don’t fall for the media images.” This got me also thinking about something that honest naturals in the fitness-YouTube community talk about.
People like Omar Isuf talk about how if you compare the standards of physicality from the early onset of bodybuilding to now, you’ll see a huge comparison. The physiques of the early days seem more attainable naturally and give young men a more realistic understanding of progress, even though we all have different physiology and potential for musculature.
Taking in appreciation from your OWN progress and the strength it gives you should be an empowering force: intrinsic motivation over extrinsic.
Remember that many of the super-muscular bodies you’re seeing are just products of drugs
I’m not trying to discredit the reality inducing advice that these psychiatrists are trying to bring across when they advise this. I just think that there’s also a level of restraint that needs to be exercised when you do this.
Especially when you start making fun of those those decide to live a life using performance enhancers. Personally, I feel it’s really wrong when these people in commercials say that you can achieve what they’ve achieved, either naturally or within a ridiculously short amount of time.
That’s where things get stupid. People who deceive others like that are total sellouts. No sympathy.
Remember that a vast industry profits form making you feel insecure about your body
It’s such a taboo to even claim that the media is affecting you in your physical image too. “that’s for wussies.” Many fitness consumers call B.S. on how supplements and “health” products are marketed to us but so many still feel this sense of growing inadequacy inside.
Remembering the time old adage that progress is all about confidence, diet, and training well. If you’re buying more supplements that real food than you’re majoring in the minors. Find security in your body through the positive changes you make in it and use that growing confidence to tackle other areas of your life that you want to improve. This whole fitness lifestyle should enhance the rest of your life, not take away from it.
Masculinity isn’t defined just by the way you look
I covered this a bit in the previous point but masculinity is indeed more than your physicality. Physicality is just superficial. The deep layers, the “feelings of self-worth and confidence in one’s gender identity are not built on appearance alone.” Our actions and our character are what build that self-worth.
It’s okay to look okay
Now for their final point, the authors point out that it’s okay to build fitness and try to look your best. However, chasing the unattainable standards that society pushes for men (and women) is a waste of time and self-esteem.
Bringing it Full Circle
It’s one thing to focus on over-reaching, the concept of moving out of our normal physiological balance (homeostasis) to induce a metabolic change. That creates growth toward our goal. Even having a few frustrating workouts is part of the process
But when you look in the mirror and feel revulsion at what you are or start using negative self-talk over and over again, then you’re going down a path that is going to be more destructive than beneficial.
And don’t get me wrong here; I’m just as one to be obsessed with training. It excites me. The highs are awesome and the lows suck, but believing in the process, the grand goal, and the intention for doing this whole thing, places me back in a positive mindset. All of these three reflection points come from a positive place and so reflecting back on them in a time of frustration, brings you back up to the big picture.
It puts things into perspective.
The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession by Harriosn G. Pope, MD. , Katharine A. Phillips, M.D., and Roberto Olivardia, PH.D.
The Invisible Man: A Self-Help Guide for Men with Eating Disorders, Compulsive Exercise and Bigorexia by John F. Morgan
Looking Good: Male Body Image in Modern America by Lynne Luciano
The Broken Mirror by Katharine A. Phillips, M.D.
Byzantine Military Political Castration and Mutilation in the Byzantine Empire