"Is training for a competition just a socially acceptable way to indulge in obsessive behaviours and disordered eating habits?"
Sports Models. Fitness Models. Bikini Models. They’re everywhere.
In the health and fitness world it seems that the fad du jour is training for a “Sports / Fitness model/’enter-whatever-specific-division-name-is-appropriate” competition.
I’ve lost count of how many girls I have met in recent times who are ‘dieting down’ and training hard to enter their first female fitness model competition.
The sport of competitive bodybuilding and women specific categories (such as fitness, bikini and sports model competitions) have grown in popularity over the past few years, and whilst it’s a sport that has a rich history, it’s largely been reserved for the more traditional body building types.
Today, droves of everyday women are being inspired by their favourite “fitspiration” memes and are embarking on rigorous training and fitness model dieting plans to get themselves on stage.
Which begs a couple of questions:
1. “Is the rise in popularity of training for this type of body-focused competition because more girls are chasing the ‘perfect’ physique?
And if so:
2. “Is training for a competition just a socially acceptable way to indulge in obsessive behaviours and disordered eating habits?”
Two very important questions that need to be debated or at least discussed, of course, these posed questions come from my general observations, based on dealing with women who, years after competing, are still trying to pick up the pieces of their damaged bodies and psyche.
Now, I personally have no problem with competitions — I love seeing people get on stage and compete. I have trained many girls to get on stage, and I too once whipped out a shiny blue bikini and strutted myself on stage in hooker heels. I also love that women are taking on the challenge of getting “stage-ready.”
What I do have a concern with is when the “wrong” type of woman decides to participate and is given the wrong advice by a misinformed PT/Coach who still relies on out dated methodologies (low calorie diets, cutting of macronutrient groups, and excessive training).
So what constitutes a “wrong” woman for competition? The word wrong probably isn’t the best description, as that implies that this situation is black and white (which it isn’t), so a better word to use would be “qualified.”
Assess and Quality Fitness
First, let’s take a step back and show how a personal trainer should conduct his or her business. Regardless of whatever goal our clients want to achieve, we as professionals should first assess that individual’s ability (physical and psychological) to achieve that goal.
We need to ask ourselves the question, “Is this person qualified to perform or achieve X, Y, and Z?” Based on our answers we can then formulate a relevant plan of attack that will give that client what they want as well as what they need.
A classic example is running. A common goal amongst women is to “run a half marathon.” They see the 21 km as a great achievement and so come to me for advice.
The first thing I’ll do is put them through some movement patterns to assess their overall strength, mobility, and co-ordination. Essentially I’m testing their physical ability to be able to cope with the demands of training for and then participating in a 21km race.
If I see that a client can’t perform basic tasks that are relevant to running (for example, Stork test or they present with a large Q angle, poor hip/knee/ankle alignment) then I’m not going to qualify them to train for the race, at least until I’ve done the necessary correction work.
That is our job as a PT – to keep someone safe whilst being able to get him or her to their goals.
If a client meets all the necessary mechanical requirements needed to run then I will deem them qualified and let them embark on a training regime.
Being a professional means knowing how to assess and qualify our clients!
Disordered Eating Behavior
I trained my first woman client to get on stage in 2001. I asked her the same questions then that I ask all budding competitors now – what is your current relationship with food and have you ever had, or currently have disordered eating?
First off, lets not confuse “disordered eating” with eating disorders. There’s a distinct difference between the two with an eating disorder being a clinically diagnosed mental illness.
Disordered eating refers to abnormal eating habits such as binging, extreme dieting, frequent dieting, yo-yo dieting, juice detoxes, obsessions with calorie counting, emotional attachments to food, constant labelling of food as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘healthy’, ‘naughty’ and abnormal obsession with food.
Sadly, all of these abnormal behaviours are the norm these days.
Most girls I meet certainly have a history of disordered eating, which is why it’s important to establish their particular habits and attitudes towards food.
The reason being that any underlying eating issue, body image issues, or obsessive-compulsive behaviours will be exacerbated when competition training starts. As such it’s my duty to advise her not to go down that path, or at least not until she’s formed a much healthier relationship with food and has a healthy body image.
I can’t allow someone to enter into the world of disordered eating and extreme exercise, where physiques are judged by strangers, if she doesn’t have the appropriate foundations (and getting on stage and being that lean requires disordered eating protocols).
Yet, here we are today, seeing everyday women doing just that, chasing that so-called perfect body. One sculpted by calorie restriction, excessive training, and obsession!
Their disordered eating has now been justified because it falls under the guise of “health and fitness” – hey, if it’s for a fitness show it must be okay right?
I’m not saying that this is the case for everyone. I know many women who have been able to compete with no problems. Those who have managed to stay sane and balanced, however, are the minority (and were under the guidance of great coaches).
Sadly, the majority of women end up worse off then when they started.
Broken. Confused. Frustrated. Stuck in an unhealthy way of eating, thinking and being.
So what can we as Fitness Professionals do moving forward?
If you or a client wants to be a competitive fitness model I suggest you think very long and hard about what the motivations are. If there’s any inkling of disordered eating habits or non-healthy attitudes towards food, then spend the time working on that rather than signing up for a Competition.
Remember, as fitness professionals our duty is to keep our clients safe from unhealthy diet plans and workout routines. Trust in your skills, stand strong in your conviction, and let’s guide people away from potentially harming circumstances.