The challenges of facing the weight on the bar

An exploration of the concept of ‘functional body image’ in relation to powerlifting, social media and eating disorders

The steady, ground-shaking thud of weights was the most marked feature of the Trinity Barbell’s session in the Ancillary Hall. With music blaring, 100kg of iron would plummet through the air onto the padded floor, causing a mini earthquake. Most lifters were oblivious, seemingly used to the feeling. I was still adjusting.

Aside from these tremors, I was struck by the focus on each other’s technique. “Don’t flare your elbows – you’re trying to isolate the muscle, don’t let the others help out”. Smartphones abounded as recordings were made to self-examine and correct method. How the body worked, how it moved and what it was capable of was the overarching concern of the evening – not how it looked. Student Jayne Jones explained there was more to working out than meets the eye: “I feel so much mentally better when I’m lifting weights than when I’m not. For me, that is my time to myself. I decompress, I love training. I really enjoy having a goal that I’m working towards.”

A final year Nutrition and Dietetics student, Jones has been lifting since third year of college and has flourished within the sport. Highlighting the achievement element, Jones voiced her passion: “I joined powerlifting in September. I had done weights, but this was proper strength training. It’s a really empowering feeling to go in, and three weeks later push a heavier weight than you did before.” Seeing what she is capable of is what drew her to the bar, and cites it as responsible for her own shifting perception of weight and fitness.

Jones’ relationship with her body has been a long and complicated one. First noting disordered eating habits when she was 13 or 14, she explained how food restriction often resulted from stressful events. She mentioned her involvement in camogie, and how she would focus on the fact other teammates were lighter as the reason for them being played before her. As secondary school progressed, she increasingly struggled until in fifth year, she sought treatment within the Child and Adolescent Mental Health System (CAMHS).

“Luckily with my family and friends, I came out of it. My mom was concerned about pulling me out [of school] but I used it as a focus to drive me. In sixth year, I restored my body weight up to a certain amount but maybe not as heavy as I was before, but what was now deemed acceptable within BMI ranges and doctors saying ‘She’s okay now’. I think a big issue with mental health services in this country is I gained weight up to that point and was discharged, and no one helped me with how I then felt at that weight.”

A tumultuous relationship

Having achieved her points, she moved from her native Tipperary to Dublin. Jones continued with her tumultuous relationship with food: “That image of the girl with anorexia looking in the mirror and seeing a fat person – it can be quite true, because you have severe body dysmorphia. I couldn’t see myself clearly for how I was, and I didn’t let on because everyone was so happy for me for doing well, and I was doing well in terms of eating. I just wasn’t at a weight I would’ve been at before”.

She spoke of the fluctuations she experienced throughout college and how her relationship with food was intimately connected to the pressures of her life. Being away from home, preparing her own food, and journeying back at the weekend, she pursued college counselling in hopes of resolving this yoyo-ing. Mentioning Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as one of the cornerstones of addressing her relationship with food, she still wasn’t satisfied with her own thoughts and habits: “For a couple of years, I’d get stressed, lose weight, people would worry, I’d gain it back, get insecure, lose it again…”.

But then – a powerful change: “In April 2018, I decided I was sick of it. I was sick of people being worried about me. I thought I was never going to be taken seriously in my profession if I was still basically on the border of being underweight as a dietitian. I said I wanted to gain weight.”.

A friend suggested they join the gym and lift weights together, as both wanted to add muscle. While she enjoyed the experience, she felt particularly alienated as a woman. “[I] was really insecure in the warm-up area where people stretch doing light weights, and of course I had the idea if I lift heavy weights, I’m going to get bulky. Often I’d be the only girl in the weight section”.

She mentioned the initial hesitance concerning how the process would sculpt the body was a burden for many women: “Lifting weights does not make you bulky, and that’s something people don’t realise until they go into it. How much of a calorie surplus and years of training it takes to turn into an Arnold Schwarzenegger. That takes a lot of hard work, and a lot of progress to get there. It doesn’t happen overnight. Some females are definitely being told they shouldn’t get too bulky but I think I’ve moved away from that.”

Once she began to see results however, she felt encouraged and the bar centred as her focus “For the first time, it was me gaining weight and liking what I saw in the mirror. I just pushed past it and did my thing. Fast forward six months, going into my final year, I decided I’m going to join the club as it’s my last chance.”

Finally, in Trinity Barbell, she found her home: “It seemed impossible and now I’m doing it, and that’s addictive. What’s nice about powerlifting as opposed to the normal gym is that women are treated as equal to men, as everything is divided into weights and body weight percentages.”

This division into weights presented possible problems, as Jones’ parents expressed their concern. Moving towards a sport that would not only encourage, but actively reward being at a more competitive weight might compromise her mental wellbeing. “Powerlifting has only made me think about the weight on the bar, and not body weight. I think I’m so detached from my body weight so long as I’m within my category. I picked a category 3kg above my body weight so I could stay there comfortably.”

Social media

“When I was 13 or 14, YouTubers were becoming a thing with perfect lives and perfect bodies. They would post ‘What I eat in a day’ with minuscule amounts of food – that was the media side for me.” This, she said, is what led her to Instagram. Discussing the variety of content, both positive and negative, Jones knew what she was looking for:

“Instagram links [for me] on social media are just all these extremely strong women doing insane things and it’s really inspiring in that sense. You go out there, and nobody cares what you look like – they care about what you’re doing.”

“I think if we want people to be healthy, we need to shift our overall view of that sort of stuff, because health is not just defined by weight, and I know that. Weight does have an effect, but there are heavier people who are healthy and we need to stop feeling one body type is healthy and others are not healthy. That extends to very-thin individuals as well. That was something I struggled with – when my weight was a lot thinner, and that’s where it sat, I felt skinny-shamed. You’re not [considered] attractive if you’re too skinny…There are a lot of issues, and it’s very complex.”

Nor is Jones’ limited solely to consumption on social media. I had watched the videos on her feed (charmingly named “thenotsoplainjayne”), progressively lifting heavier and heavier sets. I asked if this was planned as a professional outlet, or to address certain issues around food.

With a broad smile, she laughed: “I haven’t a clue! Sometimes, I’m reluctant. I am very open – it is on my Instagram that I used to have an eating disorder. There’s part of me that regrets that. There can be a perception – ‘she’s studying to be a dietitian and she’s doing a sport that involves weight’, and I sometimes feel that the fact that someone had an eating disorder in the past can cloud how people view them now.  That’s an issue because I think you should respect that if someone says they’re recovered from something – that they are.”

Asking what content she would produce, her response befitted the rest of her philosophy: “I think videos are a lot more helpful than photos. In terms of powerlifting, people would film most of what they do. It’s because, for us, watching back, you’re looking at your technique and speed. I think a picture is such a snapshot-second and you can look a certain way one minute and completely different the next. Videos have been more helpful in conceptualising a body image. I don’t know why it is. Maybe it’s because you can see a person moving.”

Her feed, her approach, her mindset – for Jones, all were functional.

An academic perspective

This idea of shifting the focus from aesthetic to function pervaded Jones’ interview. Hoping to better understand how we occupy our bodies, I reached out to developmental psychologist, Dr. Elizabeth Nixon, in the Trinity School of Psychology. Understanding how our self-concept develops and solidifies throughout adolescence into young adulthood is pertinent in the field, and seemed particularly relevant to the shifts Jones had experienced.

Dr. Nixon explained that much of the literature to this point addressing body conceptualisation has been lacking and requires better, more thorough research assumptions. The idea that body satisfaction must arise from what one looks like, rather than what one is capable of, is an idea that has moulded the lens of what ‘body image’ is.

Typically viewed as an issue that affects teenage girls who want to be thinner, Dr. Nixon isn’t alone in feeling this approach is lacking. Pope and colleagues coined the ‘Adonis Complex’ for males’ desire to become more muscular. Nixon also raised the divide between aesthetic and functional:

“There’s a scale published by Abbott and Barber, where they look at both, but it’s the only one. If you look at the literature, not many would use that, or would incorporate the functional. Most is focused on the aesthetic.”

Interviewing Nixon, the sheer complexity of body conceptualisation came up time and again. Not only were there many facets to be considered (some completely ignored in the literature), the variation in approaches was astounding. Like much in psychology, there were no hard-and-fast rules, and in a subject as sensitive as eating disorders, espousing any one solution would be irresponsible. Nuance lay at its core.

“Eating disorders…They’re very difficult to treat. It’s almost an addiction. Obviously, you have to eat for life. It’s not like alcoholism where you can abstain. That’s one conception. Others conceptualise it as a control thing, as a way of keeping control over your body. Is this another way of controlling, and is there anything wrong with that? If it gets to the extent where it’s damaging, then maybe.”

Addressing concerns

This question had been central to me both before and during my interview with Jones. How to raise it mindfully and sensitively was a huge concern, but to ignore the question seemed equally irresponsible.

Thankfully, Jones brought it up before I had the chance. Was powerlifting a coping mechanism? “I’ve questioned that about myself a lot. The worst time with the eating disorder was fifth year in school. In sixth year, when I say not fully recovered – I was possibly having disordered eating habits. Then I fell in love with nutrition science, and I wanted to be a dietitian, and that helped. My weight was fluctuating up and down, but I don’t think I was intentionally causing it.”

The easy and quick tone of Jones’ conversation slowed, as if reassessing her situation in that moment. Far from a prepared pitch, she seemed to be actively evaluating the role powerlifting occupied in her life “If I’m in something, I’m all in. I do think it’s a coping mechanism, but maybe in a good way. I love this, I’m so passionate about it – but I could be doing much worse things to try and cope.”

“This has only benefited me in so many ways, and everybody around me says that. I wouldn’t say I use it as a coping mechanism to outlet habits, more so as a coping mechanism to have healthy mental health. I try to use it as a tool to look after myself. I think people who haven’t had mental issues [don’t know] how hard you have to work to keep it in a good place. For me, as a result of my eating disorder, I had severe anxiety, social anxiety [and] depression. For me, this is minding those things as well.”

Expressing an insufficiency in the mental health services she was provided with, it was clear she felt strongly on the subject :“I’ve found the tools to help me move on with my life now and close the door on those bits. Unfortunately so many of those tools I had to seek out and learn after being discharged from the services  .”

This complexity echoed what Dr. Nixon had said. Recovery within eating disorders was attainable, especially with the care, support and effort that was in Jones’ life. What recovery meant however, would vary from person to person, and even change within their lives. Eating occupies a role of nourishment, of pleasure and of engagement that can’t be dismissed or forgotten: “Food is about sustaining life, but it is also something we enjoy socially.” Nixon had commented. Nor was this lacking at Trinity Barbell. Asking if it was ever a topic of conversation at the club, Jones laughed:

“Everyone’s always eating at training and sharing jellies out of a bag. When you’re training you can use your food to benefit you a lot and I think most people there have a pretty positive attitude towards it. The second week with training, they brought in donuts, which was so nice.”

She told me this with a bright smile. Despite the complexities inherent in the subject, there was a simple pleasure around donuts as a shared joy. Even amongst the shaking ground, loud music and heavy bars, this hammered home the comfort Jones had found in the weights of the Ancillary Hall.

For more information on body image, or those seeking help dealing with issues around eating disorders, further information can be found at https://www.bodywhys.ie/ , or can contact [email protected]

Sam Cox

Sam Cox

Sam Cox is the current Crossword Editor of Trinity News. He is a Junior Sophister Psychology student, and a former Features Editor and Assistant Features Editor.