‘Bigger and better’ is the name of the game for bodybuilders. For the sake of public show, bodybuilders will follow the practices of a strict weight training and diet routine that most people would find upsetting.
But at some point, the bodybuilding goes too far. If a bodybuilder or any other weight-training buff gets too preoccupied with the game, it can lead to a psychiatric disorder called muscle dysmorphia (MD).
Muscle dysmorphia is an anxiety disorder which causes someone to see themselves as small, despite actually being big and muscular. It is sometimes described as the opposite of anorexia, and now more commonly known as ’bigorexia’.
Bigorexia could be a genetic disorder or may be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Life experiences may also be a factor, as bigorexia may be more common in people who were teased, bullied or abused when they were young. The disorder may have become more common as men are conditioned to think they need to look a certain way to feel successful, powerful and attractive.
Bigorexia is now affecting hundreds of thousands of men. For some men, muscle development is such a complete “amusement” that they will miss important events, continue training through pain or broken bones, even lose their job rather than interrupt their physical development schedule.
The main characteristic of bigorexia is the thought that no matter how hard you try your body is never muscular enough. The condition is recognized as more common in men although some women bodybuilders have also been reported with similar symptoms. Most men with bigorexia are weightlifters, but this does not mean that most weightlifters are ‘bigorexic’. Compared to normal weightlifters who report spending up to 40 minutes a day thinking about body development, men with bigorexia report being preoccupied 5 or more hours a day thinking their bodies are ‘under-developed’.
Here are several symptoms that are common for people with Bigorexia:
- Mirror checking: They could check themselves out up to 12 times a day.
- Very strict diets: They will rarely eat at another person’s house or at a restaurant because they are unable to control the dietary balance and know exactly what has gone into food preparation.
- Keep measuring up: They constantly compare their own physique with that of other men. Perpetually their perceptions are incorrect. Even when observing men of equal physique, they will judge themselves as smaller.
- Drugs: The use of anabolic steroids is common amongst ‘bigorexics’. Men continue using steroids despite experiencing side effects as increased aggression, acne, breast enlargement, baldness, impotence and testicular shrinkage.
- Weight-lifting for multiple hours per day
- Panic over missing a training session
- Training while injured
- Irritability, anger or depression
- Training at the expense of work and relationships
Unlike many bodybuilders who enjoy the opportunity to show their physique in public, ‘bigorexics’ do not. Many will hide away for days at a time because of embarrassment about their body shape. Typically, men with bigorexia have low self-esteem. Many report having been teased at school about their physique leading to a focus on ’making good’. However, the attempt to catch up is never achieved and results in a poor sense of self and feelings of emptiness.
Because the pressure for the perfect body has become such a mainstream message today, more research needs to be done on muscle dysmorphia. Until then, weight-lifters and bodybuilders may have a high risk for the disorder. Family, friends, and healthcare providers alike should all stay on guard for Bigorexia dangerous symptoms.