How Everyone Became Depressed

The rise and fall of the nervous breakdown

Female Bodybuilding as an Antidepressant

It can give you your life back

Let’s get away from the pathological and talk about something that is today entirely normal, totally healthy, and still shunned by many women.

Bodybuilding.

Women think it will give them big unattractive muscles, difficult to reconcile with ideals of femininity that insist on lithe and slim. But standards are changing, and many young women like the idea of being pumped.

I was recently at an event where everyone was pumped. An organization called International Drug Free Athletics (IDFA) sponsors bodybuilding competitions for men and women. The competitions are layered: at the bottom level is “Transformation Challenges” (or “Bikini”); then come Figure and Bodybuilding. The women in these upper grades are very strong and able to break men in half.

But at the entry level, the emphasis is on transformation not muscle-building. And here prizes are awarded, not just on looking good, but on the dramatic difference between before and after.

This is where psychiatry comes in. The “before” tales are heart-rending: women who weighed 250 pounds, and thought they were just “big-boned,” until someone said “I don’t get it why Sarah has a boyfriend,” meaning she’s so fat she doesn’t deserve one.

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The typical story is, they try dieting and “cleansing.” Sometimes this works. They peel down to 135 pounds, but still don’t feel fit. “Dieting doesn’t give you self-confidence,” said one. Yvonne had a huge history of abuse, and she abused her own body, as she later said, “with fast food.” Then she lost a hundred pounds, started working out with a trainer, and only then did she “shed the emotional weight of the past.” Only when Jessica started working out did it occur to her, “I could be a winner.”

So this is the key: not dieting as such, but working out with a trainer and learning dedicated routines. The pudge starts to fall away and in its place arises this sculpted body. None of these young women were drop-dead knockouts, merely very pretty. But on stage, in their (shockingly tiny) bikinis and high heels, they strutted. They marched. They spun back and forth as the music blasted and the crowd screamed; and they threw up a single arm in salute as they strode back to their places in the line.

And in that big audience, every heart was pounding for them. The screams, yells, and applause were continuous, for these were ten personal triumphs on that stage, not starlets but young women drawn from real life, who had overcome these backgrounds of abuse and sloppy self-indulgence through the disciplined training of their bodies. They were not gorgeous, but they had become statuesque.

The “D” word, the depression word, was not used in the brief biographies that the host read out of each transformation. But clearly some of them had been depressed: these tales of lying on the couch in a daze for hours and eating, and not having energy or purpose, and crumbling at rejection. (It’s called “atypical depression.”) “I’ve been missing a whole life,” said one.

So here is the psychiatric message: We know that exercise is an effective antidepressant for mild to moderate depression. Many studies have shown this. But I am unaware of studies showing that bodybuilding also is an antidepressant. Yet it clearly is: These great personal transformations were triumphs over depression as well as over flab. These young twenty-somethings had seized their lives and transformed them.

Yet you need a trainer -- one who gets it -- to help make this happen. Bodybuilding won’t butch you up. But it can give you your life.

Edward Shorter, Ph.D., is the Jason A. Hannah Professor in the History of Medicine at the University of Toronto.

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