In our society there are specific body ideals: small and thin for women and muscular for men. The pressures for thinness are well-documented, but the stress for achieving a muscular physique is increasing. According to the Alliance for Eating Disorders, people who are obsessed with being too small or underdeveloped suffer from muscle dysmorphia, also called bigorexia. A disorder that has roots in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, people with bigorexia are trapped in a cycle of focusing on their perceived imperfections which can lead to depression and emotional distress. Both women and men can be affected by bigorexia, although it is more common in men. It is estimated that about 10% of men who are intense gym-goers suffer from bigorexia.
Attaining “V-Shaped” Perfection
Jennifer Waldron, PhD, of the University of Northern Iowa, explains the significant pressures men experience to develop an ideal body: “V-shaped,” with muscular arms and chest and a narrow waist. Similar to women who feel pressure to achieve the slender ideal, men can develop negative body image and spend increasing time in the gym lifting weights in order to achieve society’s ideal for their bodies. Men who suffer from bigorexia see themselves as small and frail, despite increasing time in the gym. Even some bodybuilders can see themselves as weaker than they actually are, further fueling the disorder.
Warning Signs of Muscle Dysmorphia
People suffering from bigorexia are going to be in the gym frequently, working on achieving their ideal body type. Therefore, it is important for fitness center employees and trainers to learn how to recognize this compulsive and potentially dangerous behavior. In addition to overdoing it in the gym, some people with bigorexia may also be abusing steroids in order to obtain bigger muscles. This can have significant health consequences.
People experiencing bigorexia will likely display the following behaviors:
- Intense exercise, especially weight-lifting. These are people you will see in the gym daily.
- Neglecting other responsibilities in order to exercise
- Extreme attention to diet
- Use of anabolic steroids
- Comparing their build to others
- Lifting weights even when injured
How to Help
It can be very distressing to see people abusing their bodies in the name of attaining a specific ideal. If you are employed in a fitness center and concerned about members who display these behaviors, there are things you can do to help:
- Avoiding commenting on or attaching worth of the person to size or shape
- Learn as much as you can about muscle dysmorphia and encourage members who display the symptoms to seek help
- Display pamphlets about body dysmorphia disorders in the center
- Be supportive and nonjudgmental
Treatment for muscle dysmorphia should start with an evaluation by a medical professional and a mental health provider. Even people who are extremely resistant to change may be persuaded by loved ones to at least get an evaluation. Once in treatment, a person with muscle dysmorphia can often be helped significantly by a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication. Initial evaluations will help to determine medical stability and the best course of treatment moving forward.
Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders (ANRED). Muscle dysmorphic disorder.
Waldron, J. When building muscle turns into muscle dysmorphia. Association for Applied Sport Psychology.
Alliance for Eating Disorders. Muscle Dysmorphia. The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness.