For decades, people have looked to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body as a symbol of strength and resilience. But as a new documentary reveals, the five-time Mr. Universe champion never thought it was good enough.
“I’ve never really been happy with my body,” Schwarzenegger, 75, says in Arnolda three-part Netflix series covering his life as a bodybuilder, movie star, and governor of California from 2003 to 2011.
At the height of his bodybuilding career in the 1970s, the star, then in his twenties, said he didn’t feel up to his physical appearance: “‘I don’t know how that shitty body could ever win this competition'” he thought. The dissatisfaction left him “on edge” and “always wanting more” from his body. It’s a feeling that continues to haunt him today, as evidenced later in the film, when he confesses that the wavering confidence he exudes on camera isn’t always genuine.
“When I brag, it’s shit***. It’s kind of like the other me that I want the world to see,” he explains. “In reality, when I’m all alone, I look [my body] and I’m like, ‘It’s not there yet.'”
Although there hasn’t always been a precise language to describe Schwarzenegger’s feelings, the long and complicated history of young men rushing to achieve physical perfection is well documented.
“The idealized male body is tall and muscular,” Jason Nagata, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, told Yahoo Life, “and those body ideals are perpetuated in media and sports, which drive to bodybuilding goals.
Body dissatisfaction vs dysmorphia
As Nagata, co-author of several studies on the subject, explains, “the constant pursuit of the unattainable ‘perfect’ body can lead to dissatisfaction and muscle dysmorphia.”
According to the definition of the American Psychological Association, muscle dysmorphia (sometimes called “bigorexia”) is “chronic dissatisfaction with one’s musculature and the perception that one’s body is inadequate and undesirable, although objective observers are not disagree with such an assessment”.
Typically “found in men, especially bodybuilders,” it can sometimes lead to “excessive physical activity, steroid abuse, and eating disorders,” the APA notes.
“Muscle dysmorphia is an official psychiatric diagnosis”, with precise criteria, underlines Nagata. And while its prevalence “is understudied and underdiagnosed,” it’s generally rare.
A 2021 Australian study, co-led by Nagata, estimated that 2.2% of adolescents suffered from muscle dysmorphia. Meanwhile, 22% of American teens reported “disordered eating behaviors” linked to the diagnosis, which included taking “supplements, steroids, or eating more/differently to bulk up,” Nagata says, as noted in the report. 2019 UCSF study that he also co-led.
Body dissatisfaction is different, he says, mainly because it’s “not an official diagnosis.”
“Body dissatisfaction is when someone is dissatisfied with various aspects of height, shape, weight, or certain body parts,” he says. “It’s relatively common. In fact, American studies estimate that 25% to 60% of American teenagers experience body dissatisfaction”, and more “than a third of adolescent boys” said they had tried to “gain weight or bulk up” to achieve an idealized physique.
It is more prevalent in people whose physique is held to dangerously high standards, Nagata adds.
“Bodybuilders have a higher risk of developing muscle dysmorphia, given the drive for a ‘perfect’ body, competitiveness, and the need for control,” he says. “They may perceive themselves as puny or small, even if they are objectively muscular.”
Capture it on film
As Arnold Director Lesley Chilcott told Yahoo Life that addressing Schwarzenegger’s experience with body image required the utmost sensitivity.
“I wanted to show that at the start of Arnold’s career, bodybuilding was still an obscure sport that hadn’t yet reached the mainstream, and was also a pre-fitness revolution,” she explains. To achieve this, the director extracted “unused footage and excerpts” from the 1977 weightlifting documentary pump iron (which featured Schwarzenegger and other famous bodybuilders of the time). In one particular scene in this footage, a young Schwarzenegger and his friends are shown weightlifting on a public beach in California as onlookers watch in fascination.
“People were watching them like zoo animals. It’s fascinating to see that,” Chilcott says. “And then later hearing Arnold, winner of 13 international bodybuilding awards, say he fully believed his body hadn’t been perfected, he was never satisfied.”
The beach scene, as innocent as it may seem to viewers, reflects society’s unique pressure on fitness models and influencers to “maintain perfection,” an even more intense experience in today’s digital landscape. today, notes Nagata.
“Bodybuilders are constantly comparing their bodies with others at competitions and on social media, especially with people they perceive to be more muscular,” he says. “They can often set unattainable bodybuilding goals for their body and feel unfulfilled until they reach those standards.”
That’s why, he adds, it’s important that people with such symptoms “seek professional help” – and if they feel a loved one may be suffering from muscle dysmorphia or body dissatisfaction, “find out” about them.
“People with muscle dysmorphia can experience depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders, which can amplify body dissatisfaction,” he says. “They should discuss these issues with a health care provider, school counselor, parent, or teacher. Eating disorders and muscle dysmorphia are best managed by an interdisciplinary team that includes a mental health provider , medical and nutritional.”
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
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