the real side effects of bulking
Is an addiction to protein powder any less serious than an eating disorder?
This weekend at Bestival in the UK, as the sun briefly made an appearance over the Isle of Wight, Palace T-shirts were removed and young men proudly paraded their newly gained pectoral muscles - teenagers across the country are working out, getting stacked and Instagraming the results - but at what cost?
On a recent weekend at my parents' home I found a large bucket of protein power in the kitchen, my dad raised an eyebrow and said, "that belongs to your brother". My brother Danial is like any 17-year-old. He listens to JME, likes the occasional fast food indulgence and is conscious of how he looks. When I asked him why he was using protein supplements he replied, "I want to get built, obviously." Worried he wasn't fully aware of perhaps the real reason he was bulking (peer pressure) I quizzed him further on email, he responded, "there is an incredible amount of pressure for young men to go to the gym and get big. The catalyst for this is the media; images of very muscular men on fitness magazines promote the idea of what you have to look like in order to be a 'real man' (whatever that means). But it's not just the images of men that are present, I'm constantly being bombarded with front pages scrutinizing female celebrities - this contributes towards to my distortion of what is supposedly attractive and what is not." Little did I know my baby brother was all too aware why he was turning to the shakes.
In post-recession Britain body building supplement showrooms line our high streets. Dimly lit shops with muscular mannequins aggressively pump out Avicii records, selling these vats of protein powder that claim "better anabolic activity" leading you to "achieve the body you desire." These bulking concoctions sport tag lines promising "impact," "strength" and "power" - it's easy to see why my brother is attracted to them - the insecurities of teenagers are apparently solved with just one scoop and a shake.
In 2012 a study of 3000 teenagers in Minneapolis found that almost two-thirds of those surveyed had changed their eating habit to favor muscle mass with 35 percent of boys using protein powders and a surprising six percent using steroids - Danial is clearly not on his own in wanting to gain the perfect body before it's even finished growing.
I asked fitness expert Martin Whitelock from London's MW5 Fitness why he thought bulking was becoming so popular amongst under-30s: "The majority of people I meet are concerned with looking better. The internet, and Instagram in particular, give young people access to such a broad range of misinformation, the majority of which is provided by under-qualified steroid users. I see so many people giving poor information and offering quick fix solutions all just to make cash."
So what has this got to do with me? Why am I, a fat artist with a love for sandwiches and slow bike rides, so concerned with what young men do with their bodies? Aside from not understanding the effects these readily available products could have on my brother's body (especially when there are currently no legal definitions of "whey" -- the primary ingredient in most bulking shakes), let alone the untested effects on users' mental health, my reason for bringing this subject to the table is that fat shaming is on the up. In fact, it's more prevalent now than it ever has been. Could the rise of bulking be linked with the rise of fatphobia?
Ask any fat person how young men interact with them and they'll recount stories of eyeballing, moving seats on public transport, tutting, covert camera phone snapping, drunken verbal abuse and in some cases violence - now of course I'm not saying women don't partake in fat shaming, but 90% of the mud slung at me is by built, bulky men under 30.
There is no getting away from the fact we are moving towards a dangerously image-conscious planet. Selfie obsessed, we filter our lives, attempt to defy the aging process and modify our bodies with surgery and supplements -- so who is to blame? It's too easy to blame social media, we always do these days - it's easier to blame an app than to address the real problem at hand - body dysmorphia.
I, more than anyone, understand how fragile a healthy relationship with food can be and I'm worried we're becoming oblivious to a generation who are replacing real food with powder just because they feel inadequate.
Of course there will be some of you reading this who believe you use these shakes responsibly… But what happens when they take a grip? Danial recalls a time when "a friend of mine bought a weight loss supplement and had a seizure after he drank some alcohol on top of the pills and a protein shake that he had taken a few hours earlier after leaving the gym."
The truth is, this obsession with protein powders is as unhealthy and as dangerous as the obesity epidemic I'm accused of being a part of - the only difference? Bulking up is a more socially acceptable addiction.
As my brother wonderfully sums up, "…somewhere along the line it has been engraved in the minds of young men that being skinny or overweight is inadequate, which is an entirely unhealthy outlook. As a consequence, you will find many young men in gyms perhaps not doing what they want to do, but what they feel they have to do in order to be appreciated. Isn't it sad we have to force protein shakes down our throats to feel accepted?"
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