Mirror, Mirror on the wall

Reflections on Body Dysmophia and Fitness from a personal trainer's perspective

Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD) is a mental health condition which causes people to spend a disproportionate amount of time worrying about their appearance. It's a relatively common disorder with studies suggesting 0.7 – 2.4% of the general population experience it. Certain factors seem to increase the risk of developing or triggering BDD, including genetics, obsessive-compulsive disorder and negative life experiences such as bullying, neglect or abuse. So how does BDD link to the fitness industry and how can we combat it?

In the fitness world there are constant and obvious pressures to conform to ideals of beauty, body shape, weight and size, and so we need to be familiar with BDD for the sake of ourselves and our clients. We operate in a media-focused industry and, since the pandemic, online fitness and communication have become an even bigger part of our work. Marketing fitness results is a powerful tool. We all love to share a client transformation before and after photo, but contextualising individuals with their unique situations and outcome expectations is crucial. We have an obligation to ensure people are well educated and well informed about what kinds of transformation and realistic and what are not.

I caught up with a very good (and very wise!) friend of mine - Elliott Upton of UPFitness Marbella - about this and he made some great points. He spoke about our human tendency towards negativity bias. We focus on the issues or problems that hold the most importance and interest for us. If there are no problems, we tend to look for them – creating the possibility of inventing problems out of nowhere. The stunning models in adverts and the before-after marketing strategies of fitness studios create all kinds of unrealistic comparisons. This is particularly true of the comparisons that we know are made not with real people, but with filters, photoshop and drug enhancement.

We can’t change the way that impossibly perfect bodies are presented in the media, or the dreams of more or less miraculous transformations that drive people to join gyms every January. But we can make our businesses welcoming places where we manage the expectations of our clients whilst encouraging them to become fitter and healthier… and hopefully enjoy the experience while they’re there. If our clients can walk out at the end of the session with a smile on their face, that is the best thing that any of us can hope to see in the mirror.

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