When the public sees female bodybuilders, it often gets an impression of extremism. Those aware of what constitutes bodybuilding success know this activity requires dedication and a regimented existence. In essence, women who do it are going against nature's grain-women are not
necessarily expected to be fat, but they're expected to be smooth. Since bodybuilders seek physiques that are hard and devoid of fat, it would appear that the extreme nature of their training and dieting would make women more prone to eating disorders and associated psychological
A study conducted by three women researchers from California State University, Long Beach, appears to refute this notion, however. The study, reported in a recent issue of Sports Psychologist, examined the practices of 13 elite female bodybuilders living in Southern California and the Midwest, "Elite bodybuilder" is defined as someone who competes in bodybuilding contests, rather than someone who just lifts weights. The women in the study ranged in age from 28 to 36 and included both local and professional champions. As is common with most women bodybuilders, all but one reported being sports-oriented since childhood, and the majority had competed in other sports before they started entering physique contests.
Most eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, are caused by distorted body image- The bodybuilders in this study showed exceptionally positive body images. They were satisfied with most parts of their bodies, with the exception of lower- and mid torso areas. In addition, they avoided crash diets or fasting for weight control. These women weren't preoccupied with weight or getting fat. All the subjects said that training enhanced their body image and self-esteem. They began bodybuilding to improve their physiques: nine to lose weight and gain self-control and three to add shape to a thin body. One woman explained her commitment to bodybuilding as follows: "Bodybuilding has made me stronger both physically and mentally. It's made me free to be who I really am and to claim the space that's rightfully mine. Part of this has to do with building a body that's strong and powerful and has presence. Part of it has to do with feeling less vulnerable." While the women in the study did list favorable changes in their lives as a result of bodybuilding, they also noted a few negative aspects. They pointed out that although women bodybuilders are theoretically judged on aspects such as muscularity, symmetry and size, in reality those who display stereotypical and accepted signs of femininity still win over more heavily muscled competitors. On this point the researchers contend that "such women are also more likely to receive the greatest financial benefit and visibility because they are more often selected for media coverage and guest posing appearances."
Another problem involves competitive pressure placed on female bodybuilders to risk their health, as confirmed by the subjects in this study. Four of them had breast implant surgery while others were considering it. Two of the women admitted using anabolic steroids, and two others had used them in the past. All agreed that steroid use was common in the sport, especially among professional competitors.
None of the women showed any indication of current eating disorders The only binging occurred after they competed, which was usually preceded by weeks of stringent dieting. When they did eat, they ate small meals consisting of low fat, low-sodium foods-no snacks. They all agreed that increased nutrition knowledge was the greatest benefit they achieved from bodybuilding. A typical comment in this area was, "My body makes much more efficient use of calories as a result of training. There is a more efficient burning of fat due to the increase in lean muscle mash. I can eat multiple meals throughout the day and still not gain weight. It's such a relief to find a way of controlling my weight besides calorie restriction. I finally feel free and have learned to treat my body with respect."
The women don't worry about minor weight fluctuations and don't rely on standard weight charts, because they know that muscle weighs more than fat. Although several admitted a prior goal of attempting to look like thin models, most no longer compared themselves to such images-nor did they find them attractive. Four of the women overcame eating disorders as a result of bodybuilding. Another researcher, Ann Bolin, who is both a bodybuilder and an anthropologist, explains how a bodybuilder differs from someone who has an eating disorder: "Unlike anorectic eating patterns this is not a starvation diet in which one experiences absolute nutritional deprivation. The deprivation is a relative one. Food is the friend of the bodybuilder, unlike the anorexic. For the most part, except for the week or two prior to competition, when depletion and dehydration strategies are employed, bodybuilders are practicing good nutrition."
Because of the pressure on competitive bodybuilders to resort to negative practices, such as steroid use, the authors of this study conclude that 'the greatest gains may be derived by those who are serious yet noncompetitive bodybuilders."