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All aboard the AI-dysmorphia Train

Updated: Mar 20

A 35 year old’s last attempt at a 6 pack.

Ok, let’s get my dirty secret out of the way. I absolutely love watching videos of bodybuilders describing what they eat in a day. Keep your MAFS, I don’t want your bachelor / rose suspense. What I want is a ginormous human describing their 6 meals a day, their 30 egg whites, with stone cold psychopathic simplicity. 

I have no idea why, but this is my calm-brain TV. Take Ronnie Coleman, 8x Mr Olympia, who struggled to eat enough during the day. The solution? He’d wake up in the middle of the night and have another chow-down. Every night. 🤮

The reason it’s relevant to this article is because what started as a quirky curiosity, has slowly been algorithm-tuned into something sinister. Our AI overlords took notice and decided they were out to get me. 

And now I finally understand why the combination of fitness and social media can take something that’s positive, and warp it into something seriously harmful. I understand why young people in particular, are so vulnerable to these tech companies peddling ‘connection’.

My Health Kick

On December 28th, 2022, I decided to quit alcohol. The goal was to do at least a year and I’m still going strong. With this challenge, I decided I should have a project to help keep me motivated. I’ve always enjoyed exercise, and always stayed relatively fit - but I’d never had a 6 pack. I’ve had a flat stomach, but the difference between that and the 6 packs I would see online, well I don’t think I’d ever been close.

If I’m being honest, it was never that important to me. I’ve spent my life helping people solve pain and get back to the joy of movement. Even when I've been invited to AFL clubs and worked with pro athletes, the focus has always been on helping people do more with their body, not what they looked like.

But life is short and I wanted a new challenge, so I figured what a great professional development opportunity - let’s try to get RIPPED. Let’s explore the calorie counting, the cardio, the areas of movement I’d never really bothered with. The only rule was that I could still have plenty of chocolate & the occasional pizza. This was not going to be a starvation diet or a huge sacrifice. I wanted to know if there was a healthy, sustainable path to a 6 pack.

Enter The Algo

Over the course of the year, I started looking up more and more ‘fitness’ content, looking for what others had done to achieve that chiseled look. 

The algorithms took notice. Facebook started peddling new content, some of it genuinely interesting. 

One I've enjoyed is Nile Wilson. Olympic Gymnast turned Youtube showman. He finds videos on the internet of crazy strong calisthenics and tries to copy them. It’s Charlie Chaplin / Buster Keaton level slapstick.

It turns out, no matter how old you are, watching people fall down can still get you giggling.

Unfortunately, not all the content sparked joy. About 3 months in, I noticed the bodybuilding imagery ramping up. It was in my feed a little, then a lot, then constantly.

My first warning sign was realising I no longer found that pro-builders, like Jay Cutler, looked alien.

I used to think they looked like absolute freaks (sorry Jay),  which was part of why I found the eating videos so hypnotic. The problem was, I wasn’t sure I still felt as strongly. I no longer saw a steroid fuelled freak of nature, and started to just think they were just massive. 

Was it possible that soon, I might think they were just big? Good god, what if I started to think they were normal… what would that mean about my body?

For this article, I spent two minutes scrolling down my feed. This is only a fraction of the content FB is pushing to me:

I'd been exposed to so much of it, every day, that it was slowly becoming normalised.

Back to the health kick & dabbling with diet

As I started experimenting with calorie counting, I aimed for an amount I thought was correct. I’d never tried to lose weight in a structured way before, just increased the exercise and maybe skipped a burger, so it was all new to me.

I was gunning for about 2300-2500 cals a day. I found this pretty doable without the booze, even with the chocolate for dessert. I was training super hard too, by my standards. Across swimming, gym, climbing, I was doing 7-9 sessions a week. This was up from an average of about 4-5 that I've maintained most of my adult life.

It went well for about 8 weeks & I felt bulletproof… until I started getting fatigued. And I mean violently fatigued. I couldn't train at all, even after 8 hours of sleep and resting multiple days in a row. I was utterly exhausted. I knew something was wrong.

It didn’t feel like it was a training volume issue, so I chatted to my friends at Melbourne Functional Medicine. I got some wizz-bang testing done, which I’ll write about in another article. It showed my protein levels were too low, and that my metabolism was showing signs of slowing down, an indication I’d been under eating.

So, I bumped my calories closer to 2700-3000 and increased the protein. My energy returned and the visual weight-loss continued. Eating more (being kinder to my body) not only allowed me to continue training, but was also required for a 'healthy' weight loss process.

The dysmorphia tipping point

Looking back, I'm not sure I’ve gotten away with this diet experiment scot-free. Once you start counting calories, it’s really hard to stop counting. It’s often in the back of your mind. 

If I have a bad food day, thoughts pop up in the evening about how I'm not taking my health kick seriously enough… even if I’ve been fairly diligent for days prior.

If I’m feeling stressed, this can easily spiral into ‘I never do well enough’.

But two things stand out. One, I realised these thoughts weren't popping up organically. They popped up whenever I scrolled past some man-mountain in my feed. It wasn't an internal trigger. It was being prompted and re-enforced, over and over, by pages with titles like 'Healthy Lifestyle'. I had never followed these pages, they were all being 'suggested' to me.

I also started to realise how insane the training is to get as cut as the blokes in my feed. If I hung my hat off their looks, I’d have to drop below a 2000 calorie diet, training just as hard, for 8-16 weeks. AKA miserable as Fuck. Capital F. 

Some people have genetics that make this easier, but without them… my god.

Warping young minds

I do not see myself as dysmorphic. I’m proud of my body and have enjoyed the health kick process. But even from my vantage of self-confidence, I could feel the screws being turned by the algorithms. I could feel a reflex developing to be constantly unhappy. Some days I’d feel too big. Others I’d feel too little. The absurdity of being able to switch between both perspectives was jarring.

In turn, I have been thinking a lot about the young women and men who are exposed to this at such a formative age, long before they’ve developed the experience or confidence to not fall down the rabbit hole.

I think of a good friend, whose child is currently in the throes of an eating disorder. These stories now make so much more sense to me. How could this play out any other way?

The AI wave of dysmorphia

We've known about Photoshop for years and we're all too familiar with underweight models being glamourised.  But on the horizon, a new wave is looming - the text to video generative AI tools.

Remember those incredibly muscular athletes in the pictures I shared earlier? Well, some were AI-generated. 

Just wait until they’re moving on the screen, living their daily lives, being hyper-realistic with hyper-unreal bodies.  We’ll soon be benchmarking our bodies against the truly impossible.

If I’m honest, I don’t know if there’s anything we can do. It’s human to want to emulate, to fit in while being impressive.

The only thing I can think of is to share my story, of social media twisting what started as a healthy-ish pursuit into something more sinister. My hope is that by documenting it, it might help someone else catch themselves before falling into the rabbit hole.

Was it worth it?

Would I try it again? I think so. It’s been a curious professional experiment to dive into the more ‘aesthetic’ side of human movement that I’d neglected.

I did get the 6 pack (in the right light, if I didn’t eat a pizza the night before). I’m healthier and maybe a smidge happier.

But did it bring joy the way learning to climb or fumbling in a dance class does? Did it offer the same satisfying challenge as learning to meditate or getting stronger? Absolutely not.

The pursuit of sculpting my body mostly had me looking in the mirror, perfecting dissatisfaction.



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