home Features Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: Perfectionism, Body Dysmorphia & Eating Disorders

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger: Perfectionism, Body Dysmorphia & Eating Disorders

Perfectionism doesn’t sound like such a terrible thing. What’s wrong with striving for perfection, is it not what we are told to do? Motivational and encouraging words like “do your very best!” and “try as hard as you can” are tossed around before us and directed at us from a very young age, in casual conversation and in more serious pep-talk situations such as before a big test or in the changing rooms before a championship match.

This drive to achieve to the best of one’s abilities is a great thing, yes, and an admirable attribute, but this perfectionism can take on a more sinisterly compulsive form. When this happens, when an individual’s internal strive for absolute perfection takes over and becomes an obsessive behaviour, altering the person’s perceptions of themselves and causing them to adapt changes in behaviour and habits that lead to stress on the body and difficulties in health, it is then that this drive for perfection becomes a major and, in severe cases, a fatal problem.

The perfectionist trait is characteristic of many obsessive-compulsive disorders, and can apply not only to one’s self evaluations of personal achievements but also to one’s self evaluations of one’s own appearance and body image. Perfectionist traits with regard to appearance and body image manifest themselves in psychological illnesses such as body dysmorphia and eating disorders.

The media is a dangerous trigger. Mass media is one of the main – if not the main – influencing factors in the social construction of a body ideal, and contributes massively to the incessant pressure that is indirectly, however strongly, enforced on people to achieve in themselves a replication of this ideal or embodiment of this ‘goal body’. Struggles with body image have become increasingly more prominent in today’s society, with media outlets such as the likes of Instagram constantly bombarding us with socially constructed images of the ‘ideal body’; Instagram feeds are permeated with #fitfam and #fitspo trends. Already in recent times there has been uproar about the manipulative abilities of Photoshop and inaccurate representations of “real” bodies. It is a well-known fact, now, that in reality most of these bodies aren’t realistically achievable goals, because they are simply not real. Yet, we are still seeing and suffering the devastatingly adverse consequences of the mass media.

All of this begs the question; are we living in a fitness-obsessed culture? Why is this potentially a bad thing? Well, the fitness aspect is not a bad thing of course; fitness is important, but to a healthy and moderate extent. It is the obsessive, excessive aspect of this crazy-about-fitness culture that is subtly & incredibly dangerous. Going overboard in terms of anything isn’t good, and the same goes for fitness. An obsessive attitude towards one’s fitness can lead to awfully harmful effects, both physically and mentally.

Media’s influence on body image and body image issues has resulted in societal stigmatization of eating disorders; illnesses associated with weight loss and a slimmer physique such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia are more often discussed as being a “woman’s problem” while illnesses associated with a drive for greater muscle mass and a larger physique such as muscle dysmorphia are thought of as a “man’s problem”. Although the media image of the sexually attractive male is lean and very muscular, and could be seen, on a continuum of body size, to be the polar opposite of its female counterpart media image of the ideal attractive woman, this is not to say that only women suffer from eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia while only men suffer from muscle dysmorphia. That assumption is unfair and a dangerous generalisation of very serious mental illnesses.

“From a lad’s perspective, I would say that body dysmorphia and body insecurity is a lot more common among us than people realise. There’s definitely a lot of guys who feel like they have to fit the idyllic image of what a man should be – big, strong, athletic etc. While this doesn’t necessarily result in dangerous eating disorders as it does with other forms of body dysmorphia, I feel like there is definitely a lot of strain on the mental health of young men when they feel forced to fit the mould of an unrealistic, hyper-masculine male archetype.” – 19 year-old male student.

Other stigmatized beliefs include the perception that particular eating disorders and behaviors with regard to achieving one’s own believed “ideal body” are self-inflicted, trivial, or something that one does willingly out of a superficial want to be ‘perfect’. This is a serious and troubling generalisation. Eating disorders are not a diet or a trend. Muscle dysmorphia is not simply an obsession with being ‘massive’. Eating disorders and muscle dysmorphia are mental illnesses, in the manner of conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and should be treated, and respected, as such.

ANRED (Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders) provides us with some shocking statistical facts about eating disorders and the devastating, sometimes life-long, effects they can have on those that suffer from them; “Without treatment, up to twenty percent (20%) of people with serious eating disorders die. With treatment, that number falls to two to three percent (2-3%). With treatment, about sixty percent (60%) of people with eating disorders recover. They maintain healthy weight. They eat a varied diet of normal foods and do not choose exclusively low-cal and non-fat items. They participate in friendships and romantic relationships. They create families and careers. Many say they feel they are stronger people and more insightful about life in general and themselves in particular than they would have been without the disorder.

“In spite of treatment, about twenty percent (20%) of people with eating disorders make only partial recoveries. They remain too much focused on food and weight. They participate only peripherally in friendships and romantic relationships. They may hold jobs but seldom have meaningful careers. Much of each paycheck goes to diet books, laxatives, jazzercise classes, and binge food. The remaining twenty percent (20%) do not improve, even with treatment. They are seen repeatedly in emergency rooms, eating disorders programs, and mental health clinics. Their quietly desperate lives revolve around food and weight concerns, spiraling down into depression, loneliness, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.” (source: anred.com/stats.html)

The first step to recovery is realisation and acceptance. If you do suffer from an obsessive behavioural disorder associated with body image issues, be it an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, or muscle dysmorphia, it is likely that at the start, you will be in denial about it. You may not have even considered that this may be what is happening, that this may be the reason you are doing certain things. Many of these illnesses go on a long time before being clinically diagnosed, some even go on undiagnosed, leading to even further complications and difficulties in recovery, most especially with regard to the mental aspect of recovery.

Physical recovery is only a step; it is the mental recovery and rehabilitation that is often the most grueling and challenging, but is the most vital to ensure a minimal risk of relapse. Psychological therapy during and, for some time, after battling with any one of these illnesses will equip you with the mental tools to deal with, handle, and confront any of the issues that will no doubt arise and tempt you back into unhealthy habits.  

If you think reaching your ‘goal weight’ is going to make you happy, you’re wrong. If you think you’ll stop once you get to that weight, you’re wrong. You won’t be happy, and you won’t stop there. You’re never going to be thin enough or small enough or light enough. That’s the illness. It isn’t numbers or looking a particular way that makes you ‘enough’; you in yourself, you as you are, you happy, is enough. You are enough. You have got to let go of your ‘goals’. Concentrate on you, not on the numbers. You are not what you see yourself as. It’s a trick, a trick of the mind on the eyes, and once you begin to get better, you begin to see yourself for what you are. Learn to love it, because you happy is the most beautiful you that you can be. Hayden Panettiere, upon opening up about her struggles with body dysmorphia summed it up beautifully when she said that “beauty is an opinion, not a fact.”

“I think the hardest thing for me was the intense isolation, the losing genuine touch with everyone around you, everyone that cares so much about you. Watching them hurt, and knowing you were the reason they were hurting, was what eventually drove me to get better. It was a long and hard road but, by god, am I stronger now than I ever was before. Even if, at the start, you aren’t doing it for yourself, do it for the people you love. Get better for the people you love, and eventually, you’ll learn to love yourself, and begin to get better, and stay strong, for you too.” – 20 year-old female student.

“The scary thing was, that reflection looking back at me… that distorted figure. I saw something that nobody else could see and that was the scary part. Nobody else saw what I saw or felt how I felt. I couldn’t open my eyes and see the real picture. It was like living in my own worst nightmare. It took time, and by no means was it easy but I made it to the end of the tunnel and there was light there. Don’t let your thoughts consume you… your mind is your worst enemy, it won’t tell you the truth so why listen to it? I talked to people, reached out to them. Asking for help doesn’t make you weak, it makes you strong.” – 20 year-old female student.

Recovery is no quick fix. “The thing for me that I found the hardest but what also was a fundamental help in my healing was simply the quote ‘time heals all wounds’. It’s hard because time is the emphasized word and time takes… well time!” – 21 year-old female student. Recovery is a long, hard road, but it is beyond worth the work because in the end you will be even stronger than you were before. “To fully embrace yourself & be truly happy with yourself you have to let go of the fear and opinions of everyone else” – 22 year-old male student.

Recently comedian Joanne McNally spoke up about her battle with anorexia and bulimia. “For so long I was ashamed and embarrassed, I thought I was flawed, vain and insecure. Now I don’t think about that anymore. I had a mental illness and I came out the other side,” she said. This is important for those that fear they’ll be labelled as vain or for anyone who thinks that their worries about having an eating disorder will be brushed off and dismissed as nothing to make a deal of. Concerns about eating habits and mental stability in terms of body image are something to be made a deal of. Speak out, open up, talk about it. We all have off-days when we’re not feeling too hot about ourselves, but if this mentality is constant and overwhelming and disrupts your everyday life by influencing what you do, what you eat and how you feel, then something is not right and something needs to be done.

If you are worried, either for yourself or for a friend, do not hesitate to contact the Student Health services offered to us here in UCC. You can call into the Student Health Department, Ardpatrick, College Road, or call on (021) 4902311 to make an appointment.