Author Note: This article discusses eating disorders, weight gain and loss and related mental/emotional issues.
For serious strength athletes; body-weight is something to be tracked, managed and at times manipulated. But for many women (and some men) this is much more than just another number to crunch in training; it is a potential minefield of unacknowledged body-image and eating issues. I don’t remember the first moment I had the desire to be thinner.
I was homeschooled until high school and was not allowed to read “lady mags” or watch a lot of TV without supervision. This was hardly as Draconian as it may sound; I was involved in youth theater, participated in a few sports, romped outside with my siblings, and read a lot of comic books. I lived in a little bit of a bubble, and in many ways it was really good for me. But I remember the slow revelation of two of my closest high school friends’ eating disorders, and the hopelessness and fear I felt for them. Seeing the havoc it wreaked on their bodies made me swear to myself that I would never binge and purge, and I would never starve myself.
But avowing myself of this did nothing to protect me from the subtle messages I was receiving every day from my culture, my peers, and the world around me; did nothing to protect me from internalizing a shitload of incredibly damaging ideas of what and how my body “should” be. Like so many other girls, through high school and college, my body image got worse and worse, and I became a stranger to myself.
I became haunted by a ghost. The ghost that haunts many women, the ghost of “Perceived Fatness.”
The desire to be thinner permeated every part of my existence from puberty through college. And let’s get specific here, it was not just that I wanted to be thin, it was that I was terrified of being perceived as fat. Why? As I touched on in my piece about the mental complexity of bulking (intentionally eating in a caloric surplus with the goal of adding muscle mass), women start learning a few ideas about their bodies early in life, and these ideas affect us on emotional, physical, and psychological levels.
1. Your attractiveness is the most important thing about you; how acceptable you appear to others is paramount to your success, love, and happiness.
2. Attractiveness means being thin.
3. If you are fat, you cannot be attractive, and therefore you cannot be happy, loved, or successful.
So if being thin equals happiness and acceptance from society, being fat is the opposite. Fat equals social rejection, being an outcast, being hated. What does total social rejection mean for mammals like human beings? It means dying alone in the wild; kicked out of the herd.
Get fat and DIE.
Let me clarify: Many of our most primal fears have to do with survival. Money; can I afford rent? If not, where will I live? Survival. If I don’t have a partner, and I don’t have a family, who will take care of me if I get hurt? Survival. These fears are not always conscious, but they are real. These basic instinctual drives that have kept us alive since before we had language are still burning powerfully in our subconscious minds. And when we don’t have literal animals hunting us or shelter to scramble for, our minds run wild with what we perceive as life-and-death threats. So when you subconsciously believe that being fat is akin to total societal rejection, getting kicked out of the herd or abandoned, then the struggle to stay or get thin is about survival.
For women, staying “thin and attractive” is life and death.
This is not a conscious thought in our heads necessarily, and I am sure the degrees of extremity vary, but that is essentially what we are talking about every time we talk about women and their weight. That is the emotional energy we invest in trying to be thin. Even if you don’t agree with the severity of my theory, consider some data.
1. 80% of girls have been on a diet of some kind by the time they are ten years old.
2. Over 50% of teenage girls and 33% of teenage boys are using restrictive measures to lose weight at any given time.
Common Sense Media compiled a review “of research on the links between body image and media examines the role of both traditional media (movies, TV, magazines, ads) as well as newer forms of interactive, online, digital and social media. We find that body image begins to develop at a very young age and that multiple factors — especially parents, some media, and peers — are influential. Body-image issues are widely prevalent, and societal norms around appearance and weight depicted in kids’ media are gendered, stereotypical, and unrealistic.”
The review indicated that overwhelmingly girls suffer at a much higher rate than boys. I would argue that this is in large part because boys are not taught that most of their social worth comes from their physical attractiveness (although they receive similar messages about fatness equaling less personal value), and if they do suffer, are less likely to talk about it (a topic which is deserving of more space than I give in this article).
So we have girls beginning at very young ages becoming anxiously self-conscious about any behavior that leads to them becoming “undesirable,” and it is fairly obvious to me how this mindset can quickly create a disordered relationship with food.
My incredibly badass training client, burlesque performer Fancy Feast, said:
“Women don’t get to just eat, because women don’t get to just have appetites. Any choice about food or eating that we make as individuals gets analyzed on a societal/cultural level. We are socialized to feel weird eating certain things in public, or to not order certain items on the menu, or to not finish what we order, lest we look – what? Slovenly, selfish, too hungry? We are taught to not look at a plate of food and think ‘this whole thing is mine. I need it. I want it.’… it’s incredibly transgressive to talk openly about a desire for gaining and bulk and being a woman, even as a woman in fitness. We are taught to take up less and less space, that strong should not come at the expense of being small[emphasis mine].”
If you grow up with these negative, self-conscious and anxiety-induced beliefs about your own body, you can slowly but surely slide into almost a state of feeling disembodied, which I will personally attest leads to all kinds of risky behaviors (*cough cough everything I did in my bartender years cough cough*). There are a million ways in which negative body image can interfere with living a healthy and active life, no matter where you are on the body type spectrum.
My sister Marianne is also a competitive Strongwoman, and while somewhat new to Strongman, has been lifting for years. She began lifting as a way to manage her weight. Describing the fear of getting fat, she said:
“A lot of us who came to amateur strength sports later in life are coming from a background of being somewhere on the spectrum of merely overweight to actually obese. And for us, the fear of getting fat isn’t just hypothetical, it’s something we have experienced. We know what it’s like to feel like our eating habits are out of control, like we can’t stop binging on shitty food, like our bodies are our enemy. We know what it’s like to be totally out of breath after walking a city block or two, to feel invisible to the opposite sex, to own just 5 work outfits because the idea of going shopping to buy more work clothes and having to stand in a dressing room and accept that you are now wearing a size 20 skirt while you used to wear a 10 is too horrible to contemplate. So on top of all the irrational fears of what an extra 10 or 15 pounds will do to you, we’re also grappling with the (slightly more rational) fear of what happens if we spiral out of control again and those 10 or 15 pounds turn into 50 or 100.”
If you are under constant pressure to lose weight from your environment, family, friends, or yourself, especially if you don’t actually have the tools and knowledge to be successful at losing weight, this ghost of Perceived Fatness hangs out maybe every single time you eat anything. And if you have been heavy and then lost the weight, you perhaps live with the ghost of your previous fatness. Even if you are like me and lucky enough to not have to deal with as much pressure because you have always been “acceptably thin”, Perceived Fatness is a bogeyman that sleeps under your bed when you are snuggling up with a snack. Regardless of a given individual’s health and fatness and fitness level, I think it is fair to say that this mindset is emotionally exhausting, destructive, and bad for all of us, regardless of how fat or thin we are. It hinders performance, it hinders self-love, and it is everywhere. It is hardly surprising that many women have said, “Screw this, I celebrate my fatness/shape/curviness” as we see in the body-positivity activist community.
When I as a coach or friend have someone talk to me about their desire to lose weight, I MUST first put aside everything but empathy. I must listen. Then I can help assess and create a sustainable plan for that client, or help give them direction, if that is what they want. Coaches are often far too quick to jump to conclusions. I will never assume a woman coming to me to train wants to lose weight. In fact, often female clients say they want to lose weight, but really they just want to feel happy in their bodies and they think weight-loss is necessary for that. It might be. But it might not.
LOSING WEIGHT IS HARD. REALLY HARD. To compound the constant mental pressures of fearing being fat, or being fat, as soon as you actually decide to diet, it may seem as though the entire world is conspiring against you. If you track calories and mention it out at dinner, your friends discourage you. People at the office get offended when you don’t partake in Susan from HR’s birthday cake. You’ll begin to realize that most of your social interactions revolve around food (and alcohol), so if you don’t want to opt-out of having a social life, you find yourself constantly having to explain your dietary restrictions and face pressure to have just one drink, or just one slice of cake. If you live in a big city like I do, at least it’s relatively easy to get healthful food, but in many parts of the country, no such luck. And this is the tip of the iceberg.
With a mainstream culture obsessed with looking “Hot and thin,” you’d think that everyone would be in shape, right? But the opposite is true, and our obsession with the way we look over our actual abilities is more likely to push us into disordered unproductive eating, like depriving ourselves all day and then binging. This is symptomatic of the fact that despite the overwhelming pressure to be thin, most people do not know anything about how to actually lose weight, eat healthy, or exercise. Given the amount of unscientific nonsense that plasters the covers of most health magazines and websites, this is unsurprising.
From Dr. Oz to the Biggest Loser to “fitness” articles in Vogue (once they interviewed a “trainer” who said you could “tone” your muscles through foam rolling. Yes. I know.), misinformation is everywhere, and most people do not have the knowledge base to sort the bullshit out. So while women are under a suffocating avalanche of pressure to be thin and attractive, we are given almost zero tools to actually achieve weight-loss goals, which compounds the anxiety of weight-loss and leads to disordered eating (and often extreme and unhealthy weight loss or gain).
And around and around we go: If you are trying to lose weight to improve performance, your health, or the way you look, but you do not have the tools to do so in a healthy way, you will not make sustainable progress. Whether it is because calorie counting or meal preparation gives you too much anxiety, or you don’t know how to do it, or you don’t know if butter is a carb, or a million other reasons; when you are working from a mindset of fear about your self-worth, the actual logical steps to achieve your goal may get completely neglected in favor of damaging behavior.
As I touched on in my first piece, my unproductive accidental “Perma dieting” was totally unconscious. I had no idea I was doing it. So in order for us to even begin to overcome whatever our particular hurdle is, we have to be really, really honest with ourselves, and that can be really scary. A lot of these fears of sub-conscious, but pushing back against them requires you to be conscious of what you’re up against. It is important to be really gentle with yourself when it comes this process; confiding in people you trust or a therapist to get to the root of the issues. Sorting through all the internalized self-hatred that the comes from what we absorb growing up is, obviously, going to be a slow, possibly painful process.
Women, and this includes female strength athletes, will benefit the most if we shift the focus to what we can do, not what we look like, but at the same time, people are people, and perceived attractiveness will always be something hanging out in our minds. So how we tackle this issue in a productive long-term way really depends on us as communities and individuals being honest with each other and with ourselves about how our body image is affecting us. We are getting pushed on so hard from so many different angles, we have to push back with positive goal-oriented action and affirmation or we will never be free. If you are bulking and feeling great, talk about it. If you are dieting and it’s hard, talk about it. Talk to your coach or gym friends about goals that involve what you can do, and not what the scale says.
But don’t keep it to yourself. Don’t be ashamed because you were taught that caring about what you look like is “frivolous” and now you’re a badass Powerlifter/Weightlifter/Strongwoman/CrossFitter and cannot show weakness. Image and personal appearance is incredibly important in our society whether we like it or not, and to pretend otherwise is to be in denial. Caring about what you look like is not silly, it is a deeply ingrained survival tactic that can now manifest in really harmful ways that hobble our ability to value ourselves and our bodies. We have to talk about it so we can address whatever may be holding us back. So let’s talk.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.