Body Image: Smaller-exia, Bigger-exia, the Perfect Physique, and Other Body Image Distortions

It’s a rare day that I want to talk about or even acknowledge that body image issues exist in the health, fitness, and athletics space. 

They really shouldn’t be there… at least not at the forefront of our minds.

When we are working out or playing sports, we should be admiring how amazing our bodies can perform, transform, and adapt for our health.

Society tends to tell women that how our bodies LOOK is more important than what they can DO for us.

It’s heartbreaking how many of my days have been spent watching the scale, feeling bloated, and being absurdly aware of how my body could be different—all based on societal norms surrounding the “ideal” body type for women.

Most of the time, we might choose to avoid the presence of body image in our day-to-day minds… it is a good defensive action so we aren’t consumed by it and can go about our days.

However, it would be a lie to say that those self-destructive and self-conscious thoughts aren’t there at all. 

My Story: The Onset 

The earliest I can remember thinking I wasn’t thin enough was when I was 11. 

Ever since then negative thoughts about my body image have been with me. 

I was at a fitting for a ballet performance, and the costume designer had to let out the seam of the bodice – I was devastated. 

The bodice had previously been worn by another dancer – an adult. 

Physique-based Sports Multiply the Self-Image Sensitivity 

Child in a Dance Class

I grew up in dance classes where being rail-thin was praised, regardless of how the dancers got there – or how unhealthy it was to be performing and practicing on such few calories. 

The concept of not eating well (or enough) for sports activities is widespread, especially if there’s a typical “look” for athletes within a specific sport.

Body Standards

Nonetheless, the desired aesthetic for dancers, prior to the 2000s, was basically two dimensional, favoring long, thin limbs – God forbid, absolutely no rounded or bulky muscles. 

Thank you Misty Copeland and others for starting to change this narrative in ballet.

To this day, I hear about women wanting the “ballet body” and enrolling in Pilates or Barre classes to achieve that long, lean, and toned aesthetic.

Self Image is Ever Present for Everyone

Whether you like it or not there are pretty high odds that you will always have aspirations to change something about your body.

This doesn’t vanish from your mind at some magical point in your life. 

If you have ever felt pressure or desire to attain a specific physique, that can only get worse with age as you delve into other athletic pursuits. 

Choosing to Stay in Athletics that Benefit from a Body Type

Because I am competitive and a performer, I have chosen to remain on the bikini bodybuilding stage. 

When it comes to body image – bodybuilding is not for the faint of heart. 

It takes constant work to remember that the body is a vessel to do what needs to be done and transport you through other areas of life. 

For most, bodybuilding is a hobby. At this point, it still is for me…

Body Building
Body Building

In the meantime, I still need to show up at work and do well.

I need to be a contributing energy for my family and friends.

I also need to accomplish other fun things like household chores.

Then there are other things I want to do, like travel, hike, and do yoga.

I have to remember that, beyond “looking good” for the bikini stage, my body and health provide so much to maintain my life.

The Explosion and Obsession of the Fitness Competition Scene

In recent years, it seems that bodybuilding, in tandem with the health and fitness industry, has exploded internationally…

Seriously.

When I first started, very few people even knew what I was talking about when I said, “I’m going to compete in a bikini bodybuilding show.”

However, 6 years later it seems that everyone is training and dieting down in a “bodybuilder” way — some for a show and others to maintain the lean, physique and lifestyle.

Effect of Technology on the Fitness Industry

Blame it on social media and the fitness industry blowing up before our eyes.

“Today the global fitness industry is valued at nearly $100 billion.

The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association found that boutique fitness is the fastest growing brick-and-mortar exercise category — between 2013 and 2017 membership at boutique studios grew by a whopping 121%.” – Business Insider

Sports Keep You Healthy

More and more people are getting healthier and involved in an exercise practice – it’s a beautiful thing.

Now, more than ever, men and women alike are shooting for a lean, hard physique to walk around in on the regular. Competitor or not.

I’d say, until the 2000s, if you were going to regularly lift weights, it was a common myth that you would end up looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger or that women would start looking like men.

Some folks get started in bodybuilding as a challenge.

They want a chance to prove to themselves that they can feel healthy, get on stage, feel confident and complete a goal. 

That’s awesome! Just like running a marathon, some people simply want to achieve it.

Others, like me, start to take it to the next level and want to take a stab at winning and competing at a professional level.

The Look of “Health”

Close-up of Torso of Female Holding Dumbbells
Woman Pinching Waist

Whether you are a bodybuilding competitor or hobbyist, the lean, muscular (a size range depending on your body type, but muscled nonetheless), and fit physique has become worshipped. 

It seems to be touted as “that’s what health looks like.” 

While that is not entirely the case, it shows that body image and aesthetics are rampant in our society, and in all of our minds. 

Body Image

If ever there were a sport that increased body image issues, bodybuilding is it without a shadow of a doubt.

It is entirely based on objectively deciding who has the best, leanest, and most conditioned and symmetrical body.

Is It Worth It?

You may be thinking, why pursue this mentally damaging sport at all?

I get it – completely, and I’ve asked myself numerous times. 

Beyond chasing the physique and trying to attain the “perfect” body, bodybuilding is also a gift that can teach us so much about life, ourselves, motivation, and self-discipline. 

Personal Development

For example, when I started bodybuilding, I held this conception that I was a dancer working in the business world.

That I couldn’t speak the same language as my colleagues or excel at the same rate.

As I got into bodybuilding and found success there, I discovered that I was strong, focused, smart, able to manage my time, and could accomplish what I set out to.

Self-Empowerment

Acknowledging these qualities in myself made me feel unstoppable. 

I ended up going back to school for my MBA, while working and competing.

I changed jobs and landed in the corporate world — something I did not think I’d ever do.
Small secret: I didn’t enjoy it anyway and ended up leaving to pursue fitness and art entirely. 

So now, here I am.

The most confident, self-aware, and self-accepting version of myself to date — all because I started bodybuilding.

Getting the “Right” Look

The Workouts

Building muscle takes time. It doesn’t happen after a couple days, a week, or a couple months. 

The idea you can magically have the perfect shape and definition rapidly and healthy is a myth. 

It takes strength training for more or less 5-6 days a week for a minimum of a year, especially if you’ve never trained before. 

Then, if you are serious about competing, it will take a few years again.

Training for a Physique

Woman in a Competition
Woman in a Competition

The training portion is literally tailored to build and shape the desired body. 

In bikini bodybuilding, the desired result would look like: defined shoulders, round glutes, tiny waist, and lean (but not TOO lean) all over.

It probably comes as no surprise that after doing ballet, I’d choose this division.

For starters, because of my ballet training, I had the advantage that my body was already shaped for the bikini category. 

Bikini Bodybuilding

Similar to ballet, bikini competitors are still smaller in muscularity, very feminine, and tiny – Aesthetically, that is the preference for my body. 

Although, shoulders and glutes were not viewed as appropriate for ballet dancers then – again, I thank you, Misty Copeland for your strength and diversity in ballet.

Training

The focus of training can become overwhelmingly obsessive about making a shape. 

It is so easy to overlook the strength, stamina, and mental focus required from the body to simply show up and work out. 

Training is incredibly focused on developing lifted, toned abs, and a quad sweep that is present, but not too intense that you’d need to move up a division from bikini.

The Nutrition

Food is everything as a physique competitor. 

To get lean for bodybuilding shows, you need to be dialed in on food quality, macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) and micronutrients (fiber, vitamins, sugar, etc.), and meal timing.

People often think that if you are losing weight, you need to be in a massive calorie deficit or eating significantly less — like I experienced in the ballet world.

Losing Weight

In the case of bodybuilders, and as it should be for all athletes and people, in my opinion, we are eating more food to stimulate the metabolism and fat burning as well as maintain balanced insulin and energy levels.

The food chosen is intended as support and fuel for workouts and to achieve and maintain the desired body aesthetic.

In the case of bodybuilders, and as it should be for all athletes and people in my opinion, we are eating more food to stimulate the metabolism and fat burning as well as maintain balanced insulin and energy levels.

The food chosen is intended as support and fuel for workouts and to achieve and maintain the desired body aesthetic. 

Fine Line with Disordered Eating

Sometimes that level of focus on nutrition can get out of hand and start to appear as an eating disorder. If it continues beyond the shows or in non-competitors, it may be cause for concern. 

Focusing on food is an element that you can control… 

Suppose you are after a particular body and have some issues around body image. In that case, it’s not a surprising element to be consumed with. 

Once you start to look better and feel like you are making progress, it’s easy to want to continue lowering your calories or macros—in particular, carbohydrates and fats.

Body Dysmorphia

Woman Pinching Waist
Woman Pinching Sides

Nonetheless, body dysmorphia is common, especially after completing a bodybuilding show.

You get used to seeing yourself extremely lean (less than 12% body fat) and dried out (skin is tight to the muscles).

Because of that, it is tempting to keep dieting and not enjoy other foods in moderation.

Diet

Enjoying foods like — pizza, cheesecake, wine, and other family favorites — is another stumbling block for competitors.

It’s easy to start to see those foods as “bad” and “fattening” and therefore, avoid them at all costs.

Starting to fear foods is a real part of dieting that needs to be addressed.
It’s essential to have balance and moderation for a healthy lifestyle — physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

Off-season and having a healthy relationship with food is just as important as being able to control nutrition and get to that stage level of leanness.

The Rest

I always think I could get more sleep. 

Resting well means that your cortisol, your “fight or flight” hormone response is regulated appropriately – responsible in part for metabolism, immune, and stress response. 

When functioning well, it means that it’s possible to get leaner and less inflamed from stress.

If it were up to me, I would be a total grandma and go to bed at 8:30pm each and every day – I’m 30.

Sleep is a Hidden Factor for Ultimate Fitness and Physique 

When I wake up feeling a little bloated in the mornings or up a pound, sometimes I think, “Oh, I shouldn’t have seen my friend for coffee and got behind in my workouts, meal prep, and other tasks for the day – I wouldn’t have gone to bed late and have my body look like this.” 

Enjoying Life

But how absurd is it to miss out on all life just to not feel bloated for one day?

As you get closer to a bikini show, those are elements that need to be considered and minimized in order to achieve and present the best body on stage day. 

In the process, even weeks out from a show, it creeps into my mind that that one day could affect show day.

It definitely affects my self-confidence for that day and disturbs my trust in myself.

Sleep Patterns

Sleep

The thought that “if only I’d sleep more, or better” is a constant struggle for me.

I know the importance of sleep and because I am finely tuned into how my body looks and feels, I can see it when I don’t get enough rest.

The general recommendation for sleep is about 7 to 9 hours a night. 

For athletes or very active persons, it is wise to give your body as much time as possible to recover and repair. 

My coach recommends a minimum of 8 hours on weekdays and 10 hours on weekends. 

NOTE

Everyone’s a little different with how much sleep they need. But sleep is vital to keep the body performing at its best — so 

The Genetics

Then there is the sheer fact of genetics. What a trip this piece can be and can feel tragic and be harmful to one’s self-image.

In bodybuilding, you can try as hard as you can to attain the physique and leanness required, but you may just not have the genetic disposition. 

Proportions

I have seen ladies that want to do the bikini category but don’t have the proportions to do well. Or women who want to compete in a “bigger” category like Women’s Physique that can’t put size on their back. 

I have seen men who want to do bodybuilding but cannot build quads or calves, despite their intense efforts.

These are the types of things that can lead to that “Biggerexia” mentality.

Biggerrexia

Bigorexia: a condition whereby the sufferer is preoccupied with thoughts of wanting to look more muscular and in a similar way to anorexia, perceives themselves to be skinny, regardless of their actual physical size.

Many women and men will do anything to change their genetics. 

That might mean building a different body part or posing just-so to create an illusion. 

It may also lead to harmful implants or steroids. 

It all depends on the competitor and their seriousness in the sport, and the relationship they have with their body.

Being on Stage

As you get on to a bodybuilding stage or start following a fitness account on Instagram, it is natural to compare your look to someone else’s. 

The Comparison Game

Contestants
Contestants

There is nothing like working on your body for months or years and then seeing someone else’s to find what they have what you wish you had.

It’s normal to see that and decide that will be your next focus. 

It’s easy to see someone else’s perfect body, in your opinion, and immediately feel like you could do more.

Teddy Roosevelt said it best, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Don’t Play It

I am, honestly, the queen of comparison and feeling down in the dumps about it. 

However, reflecting on what you have done and what you are bringing to the stage is key. It’s essential to play to your strengths and try not to get into the weeds with comparison thoughts. 

Your only competition is you from the past. 

Stage Bod is Not and Cannot be Everyday Bod

Once I step off the stage, a whole new reality sets in. 

The leanness and hardness slowly dissipate. 

My body holds more water and more fat—another mind trip. For my entire prep period I’ve only seen the reverse happen — less water and fat being held between my muscles and skin. 

However, the way that I see my body in those moments is not usually what others see. 

Most people see someone who looks healthy and has more energy.

Perception

Most women would still kill to be the size and shape of a bikini competitor. 

It’s hard to leave behind a body that almost had no belly rolls or any muffin top in pants. 

Knowing what that kind of leanness feels like can create such a negative body image in the off-season—even while knowing that an extra amount of fat on the body and carbs in the diet is necessary to continue training and getting better at one’s sport.

Working on Embracing the Body’s Seasons

Similarly, the out-of-season competitor or fitness enthusiast needs to note that no competitor looks as lean and cut up as they do on stage.

That is a one day only look – impossible though it may seem.

To perform in the gym, change their physique, or just enjoy life with friends and family, the body needs to change slightly (usually an increase in body fat percentage) to accommodate those vital and fun functions and activities.

I won’t sit here and tell you that that truth is with me and resides in full potency for me when I walk off the stage.

Off-Season

Navigating the off-season is even more challenging than coming onto the stage and being judged about how my physique could be better suited for winning. 

The off-season is life, and I want to look and feel amazing there too. 

In my opinion, it is harder to be in clothes, a bikini, or in the bedroom and feel like my waist and glutes could be tighter than being on stage.

Some of this comes from expectations I hold for myself and expectations that I think others hold for me since I am highly competitive and fitness is what I do.

Body Acceptance

I know it’s so tough. 

Body Types

Trust me, I am competitive. 

I want to be the best and feel my best. 

Like many of you who have chased a body goal in order to be better at a sport or something in your life, I am not above doing anything it would take to get there. 

Sacrifices

In ballet, if that meant essentially starving, okay.

In bikini, if it means doing extra cardio that isn’t sustainable the rest of the year, okay. 

As a woman who just wants to be regarded as thin and beautiful, I have and would try the things that are said to get me there. 

I’ve always been keenly aware of how I wanted to look – what look was touted as good, beautiful, or “right” for the part or sport.

Mindset: Under Construction

I would love to say that I’m evolved and enlightened and past being self-conscious, but that would be a lie. 

I still get on the scale. 

I still think to myself, “if I just had a little more definition through my rear delts and could take another half in off my hips and glutes, I would totally take overall at the next show.”

It’s a work in progress towards becoming the body-confident goddess I want to be for myself and for others. 

I will say, I am becoming more aware, especially in off-seasons, that the “perfect body” for sport or day-to-day may not exist altogether.

At least not without giving up so many other aspects of health, performance, and, moreover, life!

We are All Doing the Best We Can

The best thing we can do is try to be our personal best. 

We can focus on the health of our chosen sport.

Enjoying the moments that we practice and improve without getting lost in what could be best.

The thing is, at the end of the day, we need to appreciate and speak to ourselves with love for who and how we are and what we CAN do. 

Getting hung up in the nuances of “not thin enough,” “not light enough,” or “not tiny enough of a waist,” will only limit what you do in life and sport. 

Our bodies are a tool and a temple in which we should pursue our best lives and improve in our sports of choice.

Hit me up on Instagram if you want to chat more about body image, bodybuilding, and to commiserate about health, fitness, and the journey. Can’t wait to hear from you!

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Steph Boll
Steph Boll
Founder of Spikes & Heels. I'm on a mission to show the reality of women's fitness. Red faces, blotchy skin and sweaty hair is my everyday look and I'm proud of it! 😅