The world of bodybuilding and fitness, in my opinion, is created to make people feel self-conscious and set people on a destructive path to look a certain way. The destructive path leads to many people developing mental disorders such as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and muscle dysmorphia (MDD). To some people, the gym is a place to increase their fitness and to people with BDD and MDD, it is a prison of constant self-criticism and judgement. I personally identify as someone who has symptoms of BDD and MDD from years of bullying and harassment based solely on my appearance. I believe that the hearts and minds of people with BDD and/or MDD are suffering from each step on a scale and look in the mirror. The world needs to hear how devasting these symptoms are for people living with physical and emotional damage. The world needs to know how it affects people like me with relationships, confidence, ego issues, body shaming, and eating disorders. I have come a long way with my battle with BDD and MDD to begin informing the world on the hurt we face. Consider this a middle finger to everyone who brought me down in my past – I am a work in progress, a success story.
The internet is flooded with journals and articles about BDD and MDD but reading an article is vastly different from living with symptoms. BDD “is a mental illness characterized by a fixation on one or more self-perceived body flaws, leading to serious mental distress and inability to properly function socially” (Bulimia.com, 2018). Muscle dysmorphia disorder also known as MDD is “a pathologic preoccupation with muscularity and leanness. A subcategory of body dysmorphic disorder, MDM involves a specific dissatisfaction with muscularity rather than the body as a whole, with a discrepancy between the imagined and actual self” (James E Leone, 2018). Despite the definition of BDD and MDD, the symptoms are much worse in the day to day life. For myself, I struggle with body image issues as my mind has turned into my worst enemy. I personally fixate on the fact that I am overweight and have struggled with that since I was an early adolescent. When I look in the mirror, all I see is a man with heavy body fat even though you can feel all my ribs through my shirt. This is a prime example of what Mr. Leone discusses with the struggle of the imagined and actual self. I imagine myself as an overweight man, but my body fat percentage has been steadily dropping from 26% to 15% in the last 2 years. I still see the 26% body fat man in the mirror and everyone else sees the 15% body fat version of me. It’s this excruciating brain game that I have been dealing with since the age of 15. Like many disorders, I have good days and bad days but it remains constant in my mind. The combination of BDD and MDD are two bad disorders to have at the same time. With BDD focusing on certain body parts being reduced and MDD focusing on being more muscular and achieving a lean physique, it creates a destructive back and forth action.
Eating food is a painful task when one suffers from BDD and MDD. In my mind, I think I should eat less since I’m so overweight, but I need to eat enough to continue building muscle without starving myself. It ends up leading to overeating and then shaming myself. I don’t go as far as to throw up my meals, but I will restrict how much food I eat at the next meal. This cycle led me to try dangerous diets to try and find a solution to the struggle. For example, when I was 16 years old I went through a 3-month stage of just drinking blended smoothies and juices for all my meals. I did this under the nose of my parents as I knew they would not condone this. This dangerous diet created an issue with my digestive system and my blood sugar levels. During the 3 months, I would faint frequently and my digestive system took a big hit that took approximately 6 months to fix due to the lack of dense food. I did lose 12 lbs of weight which only 5 of those were actually fat and the rest was muscle mass. It led to me looking frail while still having a large stomach. The effects of MDD were prominent after the 3 months because I had to regain the muscle mass I lost and the BDD was still very much alive since I still felt overweight. These two disorders piggyback off each other to create a never-ending battle.
I think one of the most difficult parts of having these disorders is the inability to take a genuine compliment without turning it into a direct attack. People with BDD and MDD “try to hide the real or imaginary defect and, while they understand others do not perceive them as “ugly”, their “ugliness” is painfully real in their eyes” (Bulimia.com, 2018). Other people see me and compliment me on how far I have come and how good I look, but in my mind, I haven’t changed much from what I was. The compliment is either brushed off or I ponder it for hours in my mind. It creates a cyclone in my mind: I should feel happy about a nice compliment, but why should I receive a compliment with the way I imagine I look? An example of this is when someone says I’m skinny now. Some days I will take the compliment and feel very happy about it. Other days a comment like that can break me because I now struggle with being told I’m skinny, but I don’t feel small and I want to be big and muscular. “Research suggests that internal shame arises in response to internal repugnance of one’s appearance and external body shame arises from the anticipation of social evaluation and rejection of one’s appearance” (Mental Health America, 2018). The internal repugnance is still very much a part of my life and social evaluation can be damaging both from negative harassment or positive compliments.
“Many individuals with BDD report having experienced some form of body shaming during their lifetime, which leads to low self-esteem and internal shame” (Mental Health America, 2018). I can identify as one of those individuals who have experienced and survived body shaming. Studies have shown that “Teens who believed they were overweight were at greater risk for suicide attempts compared to those who did not believe they were overweight” (ScienceDaily, 2018). I have never been body shamed enough to commit suicide, but it’s scary to think some people have taken their lives due to shaming and harassment. If my writing can help someone see they are not alone and don’t have to resort to suicide then it will have been worth it. Factors such as “environment, life experiences and culture may contribute to body dysmorphic disorder, especially if they involve negative social evaluations” (Mayo Clinic, 2018). The negative social evaluations of my past continue to fuel and at the same time hurt me each day. A couple of my best friends to this day are the people that shamed me the most in high school. I have never told them how much they affected and continue to fuel my drive to succeed. The name calling, the grabbing of my fat, the teasing of not being able to keep up in gym class are examples of the harassment I took. At the time, I didn’t know how to handle that type of harassment and it led to depression all throughout my high school years due to body shaming. I don’t believe I am the only one to go through this, but many people don’t talk about what body shaming has done to them.
“We like to joke that once you start lifting weights, you’re never going to be big enough in your own eyes. We chuckle because, for many of us, there is an inkling of truth to that” (Copterlabs and Lee). For people with MDD, it’s more than a joke: it’s a never-ending struggle that turns into excessive exercising to feed the desire to look a certain way. I am also a person who identifies with MDD as I work out 6 days a week and sometimes twice a day for a couple hours. In an average week, I spend more time in the gym than I spend time eating. I spend approximately 15 hours a week in the gym and only 12 hours a week eating. Symptoms of MDD “may include spending endless hours in the gym or countless amounts of money on supplements; deviant eating patterns; or even substance abuse” (James E Leone, 2018). These symptoms are what the supplement and fitness companies provoke and what people suffering from MDD are attracted to. I went through a phase in my life where I was taking 8 supplements in the morning, 4 in the afternoon and 6 at night. I was spending more money on supplements than most smokers spend on cigarettes. The promises of the supplements were to lose weight and gain muscle, but the only thing I think they did was shorten my overall life expectancy by a few years. One day my girlfriend asked me what I was taking and what they did and I didn’t really know. That was a wakeup call for me to stop, since I wasn’t really sure what was going into my body, but I knew the results the company said I could have with them. The supplement and fitness companies prey on the weak and some have BDD and/or MDD which makes it much easier to sell a product. Someone like me was trying to find a cure in a haystack of supplements while risking my organs in the process. People with MDD “can also suffer from long-term health risks as a result of consistently over-exerting oneself and/ or abusing steroids or other muscle development drugs” (“Muscle Dysmorphia: 9 Things I Wish I Knew Earlier | Depression Alliance”). The use of supplements and the time spent on the gym trying to achieve large lean muscle mass can be very destructive. The legendary Ronnie Coleman has the title as one of the best bodybuilders ever and now he walks with crutches because his back is broken from lifting too many heavyweights. I suspect that he could have been suffering from MDD in his golden years as many bodybuilders suffer from MDD. I see that BDD is more likely to be targeted by supplement companies and MDD is more likely targeted by the fitness industries with models and competitive bodybuilding shows. They work together in conjunction to make people feel inadequate about themselves. A depressed or broken-down person is more likely to buy supplements and clothes from models. At the end of the day, these companies don’t care about MDD and BDD which is wrong.
I believe the bodybuilding and fitness world has a great power that can be used to help the population that has BDD and MDD by talking about it. I have only scraped the surface of what each individual goes through. I have devoted my career to be able to help others with these disorders find someone to talk to. As a personal trainer, I train people and show them that just because you may have BDD and/or MDD, doesn’t mean you have to be alone. It is tough to talk to people about these disorders and until now, only two people close to me knew about my struggle. I have come a long way and to be able to share my findings and stories is a way to let go of the pain. Why there no body shaming anonymous meetings, yet we have alcoholic anonymous meetings blows my mind. If there is one take-home thing from this is to not shame others about their bodies as it will more than likely cause severe mental and physical damage that can last a lifetime.