Arnold Schwarzenegger, even at the height of his body-building fame, was dissatisfied with his muscles. This might be the reason why, says expert.

In his new Netflix documentary, Arnold Schwarzenegger touches on the dissatisfaction he felt with his physique at the height of his bodybuilding career. (Credit: Getty Images)
In his new Netflix documentary, Arnold Schwarzenegger touches on the dissatisfaction he felt with his physique at the height of his bodybuilding career. (Credit: Getty Images)

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 never really was satisfied with my body," Schwarzenegger, 75, says in Arnold, a 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 20s, said he felt inadequate about his physical appearance: "'I don't know how this s*** body could ever win this competition,'" he would tell himself. 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 flexing confidence he exudes on camera isn't always genuine.

"When I brag about myself, that’s all bulls***. It's kind of like the other me I want the world to see," he explains. "In reality, when I’m by myself, I look at [my body] and I say to myself, ‘It’s not there yet.'"

While there wasn't always precise language to describe Schwarzenegger's feelings, the long and complicated history of young men pressuring themselves to achieve physical perfection is well-documented.

"The idealized masculine body is big and muscular," Jason Nagata, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, tells Yahoo Life, "and these body ideals are perpetuated in the media and sports, which drive muscularity goals."

Body dissatisfaction vs. dysmorphia

As Nagata, co-author of multiple studies on the topic, explains, "The constant pursuit of the unattainable 'perfect' body can lead to dissatisfaction and muscle dysmorphia."

As defined by the American Psychological Association, muscle dysmorphia (sometimes called "bigorexia") is a "chronic dissatisfaction with one’s muscularity and the perception that one’s body is inadequate and undesirable, although objective observers would disagree with such an assessment."

Typically "found in males, especially bodybuilders," it can sometimes lead to "excessive exercising, steroid abuse and eating disorders,” notes the APA.

"Muscle dysmorphia is an official psychiatric diagnosis," with specific criteria, Nagata points out. And while its prevalence "is understudied and underdiagnosed," it's generally rare.

In his new three-part Netflix documentary, Arnold Schwarzenegger discusses his relationship with body image and how it impacted his overall wellbeing as bodybuilder champion in the 1960s and '70s, (Credit: Netflix)
In his new three-part Netflix documentary, Arnold Schwarzenegger discusses his relationship with body image and how it impacted his overall wellbeing as a bodybuilder champion in the 1960s and '70s. (Photo: Netflix)

A 2021 Australian study, co-led by Nagata, estimated that 2.2% of teenage boys experienced muscle dysmorphia. Meanwhile, 22% of American teenage boys reported "disordered eating behaviors" related to the diagnosis, which included taking "supplements, steroids, or eating more/differently to bulk up," says Nagata, as laid out in UCSF's 2019 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 body size, shape, weight or specific body parts," he says. "This is relatively common. In fact, U.S. studies estimate that 25% to 60% of U.S. teens experience body dissatisfaction," and over "one-third of adolescent boys" have reported trying to "gain weight or bulk up" to achieve an idealized physique.

It’s most prevalent in people whose physique is held to dangerously high standards, Nagata adds.

"Bodybuilders have higher risk for developing muscle dysmorphia, given the drive for a 'perfect' body, competitiveness, and need for control," he says. "They may perceive themselves to be puny or small, even if they are objectively muscular."

Capturing it on film

As Arnold director Lesley Chilcott tells Yahoo Life, approaching Schwarzenegger's experience with body image required the utmost sensitivity.

"I wanted to show that in the early stages of Arnold’s career, bodybuilding was still an obscure sport that had not yet hit the mainstream, and was also pre-fitness revolution," she explains. To achieve that, the director pulled "unused footage and outtakes" from the 1977 weightlifting documentary Pumping Iron (which starred Schwarzenegger and other famous bodybuilders of the day). In one particular scene from that footage, a young Schwarzenegger and his friends are shown weightlifting on a public California beach as onlookers gaze with fascination.

"People would observe them like zoo animals. It's fascinating to see this," Chilcott says. "And then to later hear Arnold, winner of 13 international body building awards, say he fully thought his body had not been perfected, he was never satisfied."

The beach scene, as innocent as it might seem to viewers, is reflective of the unique pressure society places on fitness models and influencers to "maintain perfection," an experience that's even more heightened in today's digital landscape, notes Nagata.

"Bodybuilders are constantly comparing their bodies with others at competitions and on social media, particularly people who they perceive as more muscular," he says. "They can often set unattainably high muscularity goals for their bodies and feel dissatisfied until they reach those standards."

That's why, he adds, it's important for people experiencing such symptoms to "seek professional help" — and if they feel someone close to them may be experiencing either muscle dysmorphia or body dissatisfaction, to "check in" on them.

"People with muscle dysmorphia may 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 supported by an interdisciplinary team including a mental health, medical, and nutrition provider."

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here.