When You Desire (and Fear) Getting Bigger– Bulking and Body Image Issues

bulking and body image issues

For a few months, I felt like I was stuck on a plateau with my workouts. There were a few key workout goals that seemed to stay beyond my reach. 

When you exercise regularly, hitting a plateau is basically inevitable. It’s going to happen at some point. When it does, there are a few key things you can do. You can change up your workout frequency and intensity. You can take time off to rest. You can fly to Mexico and buy cheap HGH over the counter at a pharmacy.  

Okay, maybe not that last one. 

Regardless of what you ultimately choose to do though, the first step should be to track your food intake and track your macros. 

I’ll oversimplify a bit, but when your goal is to build muscle, you need to consume a caloric surplus that’s high in protein. 

I was trying to build muscle… while only eating enough food to barely be considered a maintenance diet. 

Running and re-running the numbers, I realized that the primary reason I wasn’t making progress the way I wanted to was that I was eating about 800-1000 fewer calories each day than I should have been. 

I’m 6’3, 28 years old, and lift 4-5 times per week. For me to build any mass, I need to be eating around 3,000 calories per day. I was averaging 1,900 to 2,100. 

On the surface, this realization should be great news. It gives me a concrete, actionable step to take toward reaching my goals. 

There’s just one little problem– my history of body dysmorphia. 

How Body Dysmorphia Affects You

Body dysmorphia is one of those things that I suspect everyone experiences to some extent from time to time. 

Similar to depression or chronic anxiety, body dysmorphia really becomes a problem when it becomes chronic. 

The Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation defines body dysmorphia by saying, “Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is characterized by a preoccupation with one or more perceived defects or flaws in appearance, which are unnoticeable to others.” 

To put it another way, body dysmorphia is a type of physical insecurity with the potential to disrupt your daily life or diminish your quality of life. 

Whether someone has full-blown BDD or a less severe form of bodily insecurity, when you have a history of struggling with your relationship to your body, the idea of intentionally putting on weight can be terrifying. 

Fatphobia Further Strains Body Dysmorphia

Especially in fitness circles, fatphobia is, unfortunately, all too common. 

Even among folks who support fat people verbally, there’s still a cultural compulsion toward thinness. In media– and particularly on social media– there are perpetual messages that thinness and muscularity are simultaneously the norms and the ideal. Just as often, there are implicit messages that being fat or gaining weight are in some way failures or negatives. 

In my own journey toward unlearning fatphobia, one of my big challenges has been extending the same kindness that I show toward others back to myself. 

I say constantly on this website that exercise is about so much more than losing weight, and that fat people shouldn’t have to want to lose weight to feel good about themselves. These are things I genuinely believe. 

At the same time, when I start to gain weight and notice my clothes feeling a little tighter than usual, it can be a bit triggering. 

How Can Bulking be Triggering When It’s Something I Am CHOOSING to Do?

I want to build muscle and break past the plateau I’ve been stuck on. And yet, when I eat 3,000 calories each day and my clothes start to feel a little tighter, it can be triggering and I feel the urge to resort to restricting my food intake. 

Suddenly I feel like I’m back in high school, being laughed at for being a little chubby and struggling to keep up with my classmates in gym class. I see other folks in the fitness industry on social media and compare myself to them– knowing good and goddamn well that nothing good comes out of doing so– and I fear that I won’t be taken seriously if I have a gut in my photos for a few months while I bulk up. 

The rational part of my brain knows that these fears are unfounded. I know that I’m not the same misfit kid I was in high school. I know that bulking is a part of the weightlifting cycle and that even acclaimed bodybuilders go through bulking periods. I know that comparing myself to others is a dangerous and fruitless endeavor. 

The less rational part of my brain still screams that I want to be accepted and valued by those who read my work or see me on social media, and internalized ideas about weight that I’m still struggling through unlearning equate thinness with being accepted. 

Body Acceptance is Active and Ongoing

What’s particularly interesting to me about recognizing my internalized biases about weight is that it really solidifies for me why it’s so important to continually work toward bodily acceptance and unlearning toxic ideas. 

When you’re surrounded by something like fatphobia and fat bias day in and day out, you don’t just suddenly unlearn it through individual conscious actions. Unlearning harmful ideas is a long, drawn-out process that takes time. It takes practice. 

For me, it requires actively taking time to unpack my thought process when I find myself feeling fearful about eating food and gaining weight. I start by recognizing what I feel, and then I remind myself that my goals of building muscle mass and strength are more important to me than staying thin. I’m at a point in my life now where I can kind of brute force my way through those negative feelings– having a positive relationship with exercise and a heavy daily dose of antianxiety medication help. 

When I start to notice these fears on a more frequent basis, I often go to social media and have an unfollowing spree to cut down on the number of images in my feeds of people I am likely to compare myself to and feel insecure in doing so. I also do a bit of a roleplaying exercise and ask myself what I would say to a friend who was having the same feelings. As mentioned, I find it much easier to extend kindness and acceptance to others than I do toward myself, so shifting the lens around to think about how a friend would feel can help. 

Above all, I recognize that having a healthy relationship with my own body– and with fitness– is a lifelong journey; I recognize that it’s more important than ever to continue investing in building Self-Himprovement as a publication that can Make Fitness Friendly for everybody.

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