When Carmen Morse first decided to try competing as a fitness model, she put in a gruelling six hours of training morning and night and ate six times a day, exclusively out of pre-prepared Tupperware boxes.
She loved every minute of it.
Carmen was immersed in the fitness world. She’d post about her “journey” to her 12,000 followers, was sponsored as an athlete by multiple companies, and worked for a supplement and nutrition company. She couldn’t have predicted that eventually, this lifestyle would leave her unable to walk down stairs or wake up in the morning, let alone lift a barbell in the gym.
If you’ve scrolled through Instagram or browsed #ProgressPic or #TransformationTuesday tags online, you’ve probably seen a fitness model or 12.
Their sculpted, tanned bodies, immaculately prepared meals and protein shakes have become standard viewing across thousands of feeds. However, what the pictures often don't show is the darker side of an extreme and elite sport that pushes athletes to their limits as they train for often unattainable physical perfection.
Carmen Morse is an ex-organised sports junkie who admits she's a little bit “extreme and excessive” when it comes to training. Whether it was waking up at 4am for swimming training or touring America as part of an elite basketball program, Carmen has always thrived under pressure.
When she eventually started going to the gym, she found the idea of competing as a fitness model very attractive.
“I started going to the gym because I was insecure within myself and what I looked like. It became very addictive and I saw lots of fitness models on social media," Morse tells Mamamia.
"Training gave me purpose and a goal to work towards.”
Fitness modelling is more than just posing for the perfect gym selfie; it is as psychologically demanding as it is physical. Preparing for a competition takes around 20 weeks, with most competitors reducing their calories and increasing their exercise day by day until the competition. Carmen reduced her healthy 1900-calories-per-day diet to one comprising mostly of vegetables, nuts and some meat.
Melbourne dietitian Melanie McGrice, who works with fitness models and body-builders, tells Mamamia this process of drastically cutting calories can be dangerous – especially when these competitors are training at such a high level.
“It is fantastic for people to be able to be passionate about something and putting effort into improving their body, [however] there are significant risks with restrictive diets," McGrice says.
"Key nutrients can be lost, and there are other concerns like emotional pressure to consider.”
The first time she trained to compete in 2013, Carmen was well-established in the gym as an athlete and an instructor, participating in and instructing up to 33 classes a week while studying full-time.
However, when she broke her diet she feared she had “regressed” too far to come back and felt she couldn’t face her coach seeing her fail, so she withdrew from the competition.
This is something McGrice says is common for competitors in the fitness industry.
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“There are emotional concerns which can impact [competitors] psychologically. [Some] can feel a lot of grief if they don’t live up to their own standards of perfection," she explains.
"The obsession with perfection is a huge motivation for fitness models, and when the sport is based on being judged for your physical flaws there are mental health risks involved. Carmen believes there is “a lot of insecurity in the fitness industry”.
She says striving for perfection has driven many competitors to go to extremes, like using steroids or getting breast implants - choices that have become “prevalent and commonplace” in the competitive fitness industry.
“You can get some great angles on Instagram. Those bodies are so hard to maintain though, and you can get warped about what a normal person looks like. Most people just don’t have the genetics to have six-pack abs all the time, but that is what you’re pushing yourself to look like," Carmen explains.
She adds, "Fear of failure plays a huge role in training."
That fear is what pushed Carmen to try to compete again in 2017. This time around she was training smarter, under guidance from a well-established coach. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to get her over the line.
Six weeks out from a major competition, Carmen was constantly hungry, extremely irritable and exhausted, yet unable to sleep. Eventually, she took a cocktail of supplements that were dangerously high in caffeine just to function.
According to McGrice, if competitors take these supplements excessively they are putting themselves at risk of serious complications.
“Caffeine can give ‘artificial’ energy to perform at a high level, but there is the risk of crashing and burning, as well as issues with heart rhythm, insomnia and kidney function," she explains.
"If you’re relying on those amounts of caffeine, it is your body telling you you’re not giving it enough fuel.”
Due to chronic exhaustion, Carmen was forced to not only withdraw from the competition but stop training altogether. Going from training six hours a day to being unable to walk down stairs or wake up in the morning has been a difficult transition. After announcing this news to her Instagram followers, she received an outpouring of support – mostly from other fitness professionals who have been in similar situations.
Since then, Carmen admits she has struggled to “normalise” her life. As a result of overtraining and under-nourishing her body for a number of years, she has been diagnosed with severe adrenal fatigue, a condition which makes simply staying awake a challenge. She is also struggling to come to terms with her body after "punishing" it for so many years.
When asked if she thought the sport was “healthy”, Carmen says it differs from one person to the next.
“It depends if you have a healthy relationship with food and you’re doing it for the right reasons. There is a lot more to it than just trying to lose a couple of kilos and then getting on stage.”
Lasting physical and psychological issues are a risk of the sport. After being on such restrictive diets for so long, many competitors go on “binges” after competing, or struggle to maintain a normal and healthy relationship with food.
“[I have] seen some people who have done it, and 10 to 20 years later they can often struggle from gaining significant amounts of weight," McGrice says, adding, "[People] can feel trapped in low kilojoule diets, and feel they could pile on weight if they try to branch out. Speaking to a dietitian can help get out of that diet cycle without significant weight gain."
Like almost any elite sport, fitness modelling is for a specific type of person. The mental and physical tolls are huge, and we must ask ourselves if the pursuit of physical perfection comes at too great a cost.
The Butterfly Foundation provides support to anyone suffering with an eating disorder or from disordered eating. If you need to talk to someone now call 1800 33 4673.
Melanie McGrice is a Melbourne-based dietician. You can find her here