By Cynthia Haro, Mar. 22, 2022
No one talks about the off-putting side of gym culture or the mental strain that most people succumb to in order to achieve their goals. Most days, you find yourself questioning why you even began in the first place.
I began my fitness journey in March 2021 ambitious and excited to look back on my progress in the months ahead with pride knowing I had done something good for my body. I expected it to be a challenging journey but worth it, nonetheless.
I didn’t yet understand the mentally damaging aspect of gym culture, or the way that in the coming months I would look at my body as if it were not my own. Through my journey, I became more aware of the toxicity of our society’s obsession with appearance. Despite social efforts in recent years to bring awareness to body dysmorphia and combat it through body-positive campaigns, it seems that we have only become experts at putting up a façade.
One day I would appear muscular, progressing as my body became more defined. The next day, my body image was completely warped, my body distorted, and I could not grasp why I was looking at the body of a stranger.
Soon after, I began to hyper fixate on my fat, protein and carb intake which are often referred to as “macros.” I listened to TikTok fitness influencers push “calorie deficit” and “bulking,” referring to when a person eats less calories than they burn and when a person eats more than they burn to put on weight, respectively. These diet fads became ingrained in my mind.
My lack of knowledge made me feel like I was doing something wrong by simply eating what I wanted rather than what these so-called experts told me to.
I did not mind eating healthy foods nor did I mind becoming truly dedicated to my fitness journey. I just didn’t know that most of the anxiety was a result of this and my inability to look at my body normally. It triggered a disorder called dysmorphia
Dysmorphia is defined as, “a mental health disorder in which you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance,” according to the Mayo Clinic. These flaws, while insignificant to others, may become prominent and distressful to the point of deterioration in mental and physical health.
Johns Hopkins Medicine defines characteristics of dysmorphia to include, but are not limited to, avoiding social activities, feelings of anxiety as well as excessive exercise or grooming. Consulting with a medical professional is encouraged for anyone who believes they may be experiencing this.
The days I wouldn’t go to the gym or ate a calorie surplus were the days I felt like a failure even though I knew my body needed the food. When I scroll through videos of gyms and meal prep, there’s always an underlying discouraging tone when the topic of missing the gym or eating “unclean” comes up.
How could I not feel ashamed when I was never praised for the body I had before and the body I have now is still not good enough?
Months into the fitness journey, after consistently eating clean and going to the gym every day, I still felt as if my body had never changed.
Past eating disorders I thought I had under control began to resurface, and every calorie mattered more than before. Calorie tracking apps like MyFitnessPal became my obsession. Sometimes, if I went over my calories for the day, I would begin to skip meals the next.
In retrospect, this was more damaging than the calories themselves.
I felt alone in the process of it all because everyone assumed I must have been okay. You find yourself fighting a constant battle in your mind trying to figure out what the real you truly looks like. As months passed me by, I recognized myself less and less. Everyone around me was praising my progress for a moment. The dissonance between my discomfort and the praise I received was steep.
My friends and family naturally assumed that because I was always working out, that meant I was content with my progress. But most days, I felt disappointed.
Once you begin to see the progress for yourself, it’s a great feeling, and it makes you want to work even harder. Days begin to consist solely of school, work and the gym. It didn’t matter if I was not getting enough sleep . This is what I was supposed to be doing. Right?
It becomes an addiction; you are never satisfied with the progress you’ve made even if you’ve already met your goals.
The worst part of it all is knowing that so many other people go through it silently, but no one ever talks about it. There is no warning that comes with toxic positivity as you become a part of this gym culture.
It is the responsibility of fitness influencers with large platforms to shed a light on this issue and the negative aspects of gym culture, not just the benefits. Nobody should ever feel ostracized by their own experience.