My name is George, I am the founder of MyoMinds, collaborating with First Steps ED this Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The nuances of gym culture, and the effect it has on the people who engage with it, is something I write and talk about almost daily, so you’d think writing this blog would be a walk in the park. But no. What struck me, as I sit here on this cold morning in my favourite coffee shop, is that there might just be too many things I want to say.
I see Eating Disorders Awareness Week as this grand opportunity to change people’s minds and influence new perspectives that may have otherwise passed people by. So, I don’t want to miss this opportunity, but at the same time, how do I do that in one blog?! When I first started MyoMinds I tried to do this with stories, my own and others who kindly granted me the permission to do so. As time went on, and I learnt more and more, I felt as if I should move on. That the impact of stories had been and gone, that no one with a different perspective would care enough to read the story of someone that didn’t match their own beliefs.
But looking round this coffee shop, I see multiple people flicking through the bound pages of just that, stories of others, some real and some fake but all likely containing new perspectives to the reader. So today I am reverting to my old ways and telling my story…
(A quick warning: My story does contain mentions of disordered eating and exercise, and some mentions of suicidal thoughts.)
Growing up I never felt like I matched what was expected of me. As a young boy I looked up to the men around me. This usually took the form of my dad, who had regularly been describe as “‘ard as nails” by other men I met. I remember countless stories from large men down the pub, describing the collective standing of hair on the back of necks when my dad’s studs sank into the mud of a rugby pitch. He earnt respect by being tough, being feared, and for his lack of fear of others around him. These traits are often the go-to ways to earn ‘man points’ in most settings, and they weren’t traits I possessed. I’ve always been very emotional, definitely not feared, and I was terrified by that scene in Harry Potter when the guy turned into a werewolf…
I was never told outright that I was wrong for being this way, but I felt it every time I watched a movie or TV show with the hero who shared the traits of my dad, and the side kick or funny side character who had mine. I first tried Rugby as a way to up ‘level up’ my manliness, but an injury to my spine snubbed that out; I was out for a year with minimal movement and lots of sympathy from family and friends. Over that time I gained a lot of weight and returned to school to find people treating me differently because of my body (at least that’s what I assumed). It felt like the little respect I had gained from rugby had gone, and then some, because of my weight gain.
So, I began trying to lose weight. As soon as my surgeon (I had some metal put in my back) gave me the go ahead to move again, I was in the gym walking on a treadmill. And, as anyone who’s shared a similar journey to me will attest, I was praised. When someone is in a larger body, and is actively trying to reduce it, they are praised. I was congratulated for my ‘determination’, my ‘work ethic’, and my ‘consistency’, three words I heard being said to Rocky in almost all of his movies. These words brought with them the ‘man points’ I was searching for. So I began upping the exercise, I started eating less, I started losing weight faster, and I was praised more.
During this time, I was reading around online about food and exercise, and stumbled across the ‘health and fitness’ world (basically the Overlord of gym culture). As I delved deeper into this echo-chamber I found new role models: men with huge arms, wide shoulders and six pack abs; all of whom were using those three words that Rocky loved, and preached messages of being different, being misunderstood, and how their way of life could make me a better man.
After years of aligning myself to this community, I would listen to motivational speakers instead of music, I would obsessively track my macronutrients to maximise anabolic potential, and I would scream at my gym friends to “show the world what can result from determination, work ethic and consistency”, whilst we struggled through sets of bench press. I had become dependent on my persona of the ‘gym bro’ and it fed through to my normal life. I would size myself up to every man I walked past on the street, I would obsessively flex at myself in the mirror for hours a day, and I did everything I could to make sure people noticed I was the ‘hardest worker in the room’ every time I stepped foot in the gym (often via grunts and shouting).
Now, I can almost hear the symphonies of ‘worlds smallest violins’ from you all, and understandably so; I was obnoxious, pompous, and showed all the traits of a narcissistic #@!$#@.
But what I failed to mention before were the consequences that came from when I felt I ‘lost’ the size up with the man on the street, or I found an angle in the mirror that I didn’t like, or if I felt unappreciated in the gym. My dependency on this lifestyle, the exercise, the diet, and the accompanying personality traits was so strong that any chink in the armour resulted in an overwhelming sense of shame for who I was, and grief for the moments I felt I was who I’m supposed to be. These moments rose numerous times whilst at university, often resulting in me locking myself in my room and binge eating uncontrollably. In my second year, it finally reached the point where I had ‘failed’ so many times, and had given up for long enough, that I felt the path back to my dependency was just too far; that it would be better for everyone if I was no longer here to disappoint. Luckily, this coincided with a visit from one of my best friends, who insisted I seek professional help. After hitting such a low I, luckily, saw that as my only option and did just that and haven’t looked back since (I still see a counsellor today, about 5 years later).
Counselling taught me to share the side of myself that I felt ashamed by, and doing so taught me that people actually liked that side of me more than the act I was putting on (who’d have thought it?). As with any recovery, it was a winding road with plenty of bumps but over time I learnt to reassess why I felt I needed to be a certain way, and to instead figure out what I wanted to be. With that, my dependency on the way I ate, exercised and looked also started to fade. Don’t get me wrong, I am still human, I still get the shriek of anxiety ringing in my ears if I see myself at a certain angle in the mirror, but I have learnt to shush it with the reminder of the many other things I now love about myself instead.
If you liked reading my story, and would like to hear my thoughts on these things more, please do listen in on our round table discussion on 02 March from 12pm where I’ll be hosting a chat with some great people! You can also listen to me talk with lots of interesting people on the ‘MyoMinds Podcast’ available on Spotify, Apple Music, and Google Podcasts.
Please do follow me on social media or you can find everything on our website: MyoMinds.co.uk