At some point we are all impressed by a perfect physique. Indeed, some bodies really do look like sculpted works of art. And yet even care for one’s body can be taken too far. Everyone has seen those freakishly muscular men, oiled and tanned, who devote hours each day to weight-lifting. While for most this is merely a hobby, for others it becomes addictive, even harmful.
It is often said that a true addict (meaning someone with an addictive personality) could become addicted to anything. The English football star Paul Gascoigne, for example, became addicted to candy when he gave up alcohol. In the case of bodybuilding, however, the addiction usually addresses a specific need.
Obsessive bodybuilders are often trying to compensate in some way. After all, look at the activity itself. What are they trying to do? Clearly, they are trying to enlarge themselves. For many, hardening and strengthening the body is like building a defensive wall or shield. But a defense against what? In many cases, a defense against the past, or, rather, a defense against feelings left over from the past.
Someone bullied or persecuted, whether at home or at school, usually suffered at the hands of people larger and stronger. And he never forgets that feeling of utter helplessness, the acute awareness of how feeble and weak his body was compared to the body that thumped and pushed him around. That memory of impotence, of weakness and humiliation, remains, and some determine never to be that vulnerable again.
In other cases, the bodybuilder is compensating for his weakness and vulnerability here and now. Someone trapped in a low-paid, low-status job, for example, may feel both helpless and humiliated. By bulking up his muscles he symbolically enlarges his wounded and diminished self. Indeed, someone who feels small and ignored quite literally increases his presence by taking protein shakes and lifting weights. And his big build dissuades others from exploiting his position by ordering him about, or complaining in a rude and aggressive manner.
Bulging muscles also boost self-esteem. Men assume that women find this look irresistibly attractive, and that the more muscly they are, the more attractive they become. In fact, this is not always true. On the contrary, many women find it deeply unattractive. Men also assume that other men are impressed, though, once again, this is far from universally true.
Bodybuilding can also be a defense against time and ageing. For many people, especially those who were attractive in their youth, the ageing process can be a deeply upsetting, even traumatic, experience – though they make light of it. Hair thins and greys, the face sags, and the libido drops. Muscle mass also declines. By hitting the gym, people take back control. A 40-year-old cannot stop his hair falling out, but he can enlarge his biceps.
Deciding Whether You Have a Problem
If you suspect that you have developed an addiction, consider the following. First, is the desire to work out compulsive? In other words, is it something you struggle to control? Some people will literally wake in the middle of the night so as to get in an hour’s weight lifting, others find it as hard to resist the gym as an alcoholic finds it to walk past a bar.
Excess and self-punishment are also signs of addiction. If you constantly push yourself and never feel satisfied, you may have a problem. Working out even when injured or sick is another classic sign. You would not be the first bodybuilder to quite literally wrench a shoulder out of joint or wreck his knees because he ignored a doctor’s advice.
Obsession is very common. Do you constantly think about working out? You may have tried, or be considering, steroids. If you have obtained something illegal, or take more than the recommended amount, that is a concern. Bodybuilders will also check themselves in the mirror several times a day – and do so compulsively. Indeed, bodybuilders often exhibit many OCD characteristics.
And this obsession may interfere with your social life and relationships; addictions usually do. You may have ruined friendships, or split up with partners, because they grew sick of your obsession. Indeed, a bodybuilder, like any obsessive, can seem excruciatingly dull to those who do not share his interest.
Then there is shame and dissatisfaction. Along with OCD, bodybuilders frequently show signs of dysmorphia, meaning that their view of their body is distorted. Just as the anorexic looks in the mirror and sees only fat, the bodybuilder often sees a skinny weakling.
And this is not helped by constant comparisons with larger, stronger rivals. Some bodybuilders, though they are bigger and more toned than the average man, feel so ashamed of their body that they cover up their biceps and look forward to the winter so they can wear less revealing clothes.
Finally, consider how you feel when you can’t lift weights for a few days. Imagine you are ill, for example, or staying with friends deep in the countryside and unable to find a gym. Most people would just shrug and accept this. Not the addict. He will be restless and anxious, convinced he can feel his muscles withering away.
Overcoming Your Addiction
First, you must be rational. The obsessive bodybuilder often develops the crazy idea that he can convert all fat into muscle. Fat is ugly and bad, muscle attractive and good. In fact, no amount of working out will ever turn your body into pure muscle. The body needs fat; it can’t survive without it. And human beings evolved to seek out calories which they can pack away as fat.
Throughout the vast majority of our evolution there were no supermarkets or restaurants available. Food was often scarce and the body had to draw on its fat reserves for energy. So when you try to burn off all fat, or convert it all into muscle, you push your body in ways it was never meant to be pushed.
It is important, however, not to be too hard on yourself. Men are themselves victims of gender stereotypes. Fat is not a feminist issue alone. Men also feel shamed by society. But, whereas young women want to be thinner, young men want to be bigger. Middle-aged men, on the other hand, often share a woman’s sense of shame at their increasing weight.
Try to understand why you feel this need to enlarge yourself. Are you trying to compensate for something? Think back to your childhood. Was there a time when you felt small, fragile and vulnerable? You may be a twenty-eight year old with his own business and apartment, but that feeling of being a bullied and humiliated child is never entirely outgrown; it lingers on in the subconscious. For example, people who were subjected to violence when young can find themselves slipping straight back into old patterns of feeling and behavior when assaulted in later life. Or maybe you are trying to compensate for something here and now.
The key is to derive your self-esteem from different sources. The healthiest and strongest individual is well-rounded: he pays attention to all aspects of his character, from physical to spiritual, intellectual to social, and keeps them in healthy balance. If you lift weights to compensate for your poor literacy or low-status job, could you not address this by taking an evening class or working towards a change of career?
And consider the role of gender stereotyping. Feminists rightly complain about the patriarchy and the way women were traditionally raised to play with dolls, to believe themselves incapable of rational thought, to feel incomplete without a man, and so on. But men can also be victims of these stereotypes.
Even today, many men feel pressured to live up to a macho ideal. Ask the average young man what he thinks it means to be a man he will probably reply “to be tough,” or “not to show fear,” etc. And, just as young women feel pressured to be thin, so many men feel pressured to build up muscles and intimidate other men.
Finally, a word of caution. Men who were victims of bullying or violence often build up their muscles to deter future assaults. But enlarging your muscles to an abnormal size can actually have the opposite effect and act as a provocation. If you want to learn to stand up for yourself, take a course in assertiveness and self-defense instead.
Obviously, there is nothing wrong with working out. A well-toned body can indeed be attractive, and if it improves someone’s health and confidence, that is a bonus. But be in no doubt that bodybuilding can become an addiction and even cause health problems. It is also worth remembering that potential partners may not always find the muscly look attractive. Indeed, they may find it a turn off rather than a turn on!