As fitness lovers, we associate having goals, working out and prioritizing our strength training as hallmarks of strong mental and physical health.
But any activity, when out of balance with our lifestyle or emotions, can be detrimental to our health.
Muscle dysmorphia, or ‘bigorexia,’ is a subtype of body dysmorphic disorder affecting mostly male gym lovers. This thought pattern causes them to constantly view themselves as too small, lacking muscle or insufficiently lean.
In this article, we go over:
- Muscle Dysmorphia: Body Dysmorphia in Men
- Behaviours Associated with Muscle Dysmorphia
- How to Overcome Bigorexia & Improve Self Esteem
What is Muscle Dysmorphia? And how does it affect men?
When discussing body image issues, the conversation often focuses on the standards of beauty placed on women. Because of this focus, society is more aware of the negative impacts this has on women’s mental and physical health.
Less spoken of, but also an issue on the rise, is that of muscle dysmorphia - a disorder affecting mostly men who experience an obsessive concern about not being muscular or lean enough. When not addressed, body dysmorphia can lead to depression, anxiety, self harm and suicide.
Muscle dysmorphia is a compulsive obsession with gaining muscle. Men with muscle dysmorphia, despite believing they don’t have enough muscle mass, are often very muscular already. However, the disorder makes them believe that they are either too lean and skinny or think that they have too much fat and not enough muscle.
Although the media tends to focus on women when it comes to body dysmorphia, men statistically suffer from body dysmorphia just as much as women do. According to studies, the prevalence rate for body dysmorphic disorder in US adult males is estimated to be 2.2%, while for US adult females is 2.5%.
Another form of body dysmorphia is anorexia - the obsessive concern that one is not thin enough. 25% of people with anorexia are men. Because people do not assume that men have eating disorders, men are more likely to die from anorexia because they are less likely to receive help sooner.
This stigma makes it hard for men to ask for help, and the lack of awareness of this disorder means men end up suffering through muscle dysmorphia in silence.
It’s more common than we think, as a shocking 1 in 10 male gym goers experience muscle dysmorphia.
Of course, both women and men can have muscle dysmorphia. A 2019 study of over 14,000 young people found that 22% of males and 5% of females reported having disordered eating patterns linked to working out and getting more muscular.
Behaviours Associated with Muscle Dysmorphia
It’s helpful to know what behaviours are associated with muscle dysmorphia so we can catch warning signs - both our own, and those of our friends.
- A commitment to working out shouldn’t take up all of one’s time - nor should one start neglecting their relationships and responsibilities in favour of compulsively exercising.
- Overexertion during weightlifting, finding it difficult to rest and working out even when injured
- Experiencing negative self comparisons to more muscular men
Out of place distress and panic when a workout is missed
- Using steroids or weight loss drugs
- Eating disorders & bulimic behaviors
- Substance abuse
While body dysmorphia among males is often perceived as an obsession over body size and muscle mass, not all men experience body dysmorphia in the same way.
How the disorder manifests is unique to each person’s history, cultural background, sense of identity, and many other psychological and social factors. No matter how the disorder presents itself, the important thing to know is that body dysmorphia is an obsession and fixation over one’s perceived flaws or defects.
The problem here isn’t working out or fitness itself - but rather, the disordered belief that fitness is the solution to overcoming shame for one’s body.
How to Overcome Bigorexia & Improve Self Esteem
There are many possible contributors to the development of muscle dysmorphia. Many mental health disorders are rooted in negative experiences during our formative years. Traumatic events like bullying or a consistent lack of control over one’s negative experiences can have massive impacts later on in life.
As adults, we may experience unexpected or drastic life changes that also create a lack of control. These can include becoming a dad, receiving a diagnosis, or even just growing older.
Losing confidence in our appearance may lead to feeling less self-assured and losing interest in your fitness activities - or it may lead to negative thoughts and feelings about oneself and compulsive exercise or nutrition behaviours.
Living with muscle dysmorphia means finding coping strategies. The following may offer symptom relief and a feeling of control:
- Find and participate in recovery or support groups for people with body dysmorphia
- Practice mindfulness exercises like meditation and deep breathing to bring yourself back into the present and out of your mind
- Spend more active time in nature
- Keep a journal to help process your emotions and find patterns in your symptoms
- Identify triggers and avoid them where you can
- Engaging in cognitive-behavioral therapy with a professional
On the road to healing
We stand by the importance of strength training for overall physical and mental health. However, it's important we recognize the prevalence of muscle dysmorphia in men and work to beat the stigma to help those secretly suffering with BDD on the road to recovery.
Body dysmorphic disorders like muscle dysmorphia tend not to be isolated and can lead to more conditions like depression, anxiety, OCD, substance abuse, self harm and risk of suicide.
We hope this article was illuminating, and encourage you to find support if it rings true for you.