Muscle Dysmorphia, or Bigorexia as it is commonly known, is a body dysmorphic disorder which affects 1 in 10 male gym goers. The disorder revolves around an individual’s desire for a larger or more muscular body (Pope et al., 2000). When this concept was first investigated, it was originally diagnosed as ‘reverse anorexia’ in a population of male bodybuilders who had previously been anorexic. Interestingly, their thought patterns had changed from feelings of being too big, to feelings of being inadequate and weak (Pope, Katz & Hudson, 1993). Consequently, Pope, Gruber, Choi, Olivardia and Phillips (1997) proposed a diagnostic criteria, with individuals suffering from muscle dysmorphia relating to at least two of the four criteria:
1) Giving up important social, occupational or recreational activities due to a compulsive need to exercise
2) Avoid situations where his or her body is exposed to others.
3) Pre- occupation about the inadequacy of body size or musculature, causing significant distress or impairment in social occupational or other important areas of functioning.
4) The individual continues to work out, diet or using performance- enhancing substances.
Within the media, the consumption of performance-enhancing substances (anabolic steroids) and extreme dieting have received attention. With startling statistics showing steroid use to have increased by 600% over the last 10 years (Telegraph, 2017), which coincides with the rise of social media and the large volume of males engaging in resistance training. Thereby, to several gym goers developing an unhealthy obsession with how their body looks, with muscle dysmorphic individual’s becoming dissatisfied with their degree of muscularity. For instance, the average gym-goer typically spends an average of 40 minutes contemplating their physical development, in relation to muscle dysmorphic individuals who spend 5 hours a day considering their physical under development (Zubcevic- Basic, 2013). Consequently, this dissatisfaction can drive males to take anabolic steroids, which, in its basic form, enables the individual to achieve desired strength and size by delivering an increased supply of oxygen to muscles, boosting stamina and aiding the production of lean muscle (Joubert & Melluish, 2016).Whilst the short-term benefits are well documented, the dark side of steroid abuse can be catastrophic, with several debilitative short and long term consequences identified (Mosley, 2008). However, these are ignored as gym goers search for self-gratification and praise from their peers regarding their appearance.
Closely linked with the consumption of anabolic steroids is eating disorders, with the term bigorexia based on the idea of reverse anorexia- eating a large number of calories in a bid to put on muscle mass (Pope et al., 1993). Here, it is important to differentiate between a regular gym goer and a muscle dysmorphic individual. For example, whilst a regular gym goer is happy to eat out and indulge in food as part of a healthy, balanced diet, muscle dysmorphic individuals are unable to do so, leading to them declining social events involving food as they feel uncomfortable eating outside of their strict dietary requirements (Morgan, 2008), which can lead to an eating disorder (Segura, Castell, Baeza & Guillén,2015). The most common eating disorder associated with muscle dysmorphia is a form of bulimia nervosa (Segura et al., 2015), with individuals over eating on a regular basis due to a fear that a lack of calories will result in them looking smaller, inadequate and weak. However, further research needs to examine this eating disorder to gain a greater understanding.
As previously touched on, the rise in anabolic steroid use and eating disorders coincides with the emergence of social media with platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook giving users the opportunity to post pictures presenting them in a favourable light, whilst the speed and ease with which you can post a picture leading to ready and multiple comparisons that gym-goers up and down the country engage in (Tiggemann & Miller, 2010). Consequently, research has noted young men are becoming dissatisfied with their appearance (Mosley, 2008). This satisfaction has been intensified by the praise the media gives to the muscular male body ideal (Pope, Phillips & Olivardia, 2000) , with the role social media now plays cannot be underestimated. For instance, recent research identified 57% of 1,000 boys noted to feel pressure from social media to look a specific way. Whilst social media can be used as a useful platform to promote a healthy, active lifestyle, research has shown males who observe muscular images of men on social media to report negative body dissatisfaction (Olivardia, Pope, Borrowiecki & Cohane, 2004), with this relationship intensified by how long an individual engages in social media. Whilst the images may be aiming to inspire individuals, it can be suggested it is in fact doing the opposite, leading to the rise in anabolic steroid use and eating disorders. With the long-term effects of body dysmorphic disorders unknown, the next decade will generate a greater understanding about how harmful muscle dysmorphia can be to an individual.
Eli Joubert, H., & Melluish, S. (2016). Considering anabolic androgenic steroid use in relation to non-substance related diagnostic categories with special emphasis on eating disorders: a systematic review. Journal of Substance Use, 21, 210-216.
Morgan, J. F. (2008). The invisible man: A self-help guide for men with eating disorders, compulsive exercise and bigorexia. Routledge.
Mosley, P. E. (2009). Bigorexia: bodybuilding and muscle dysmorphia. European Eating Disorders Review, 17(3), 191-198.
Olivardia, R., Pope Jr, H. G., Borowiecki III, J. J., & Cohane, G. H. (2004). Biceps and Body Image: The Relationship Between Muscularity and Self-Esteem, Depression, and Eating Disorder Symptoms. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 5, 112-120.
Pope, H. G., Gruber, A. J., Choi, P., Olivardia, R., & Phillips, K. A. (1997). Muscle dysmorphia: An underrecognized form of body dysmorphic disorder. Psychosomatics, 38, 548-557.
Pope Jr, H. G., Gruber, A. J., Mangweth, B., Bureau, B., Decol, C., Jouvent, R., & Hudson, J. I. (2000). Body image perception among men in three countries. American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 1297-1301.
Pope, H., Phillips, K. A., & Olivardia, R. (2000). The Adonis complex: The secret crisis of male body obsession. Simon and Schuster.
Pope, H. G., Katz, D. L., & Hudson, J. I. (1993). Anorexia nervosa and “reverse anorexia” among 108 male bodybuilders. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 34, 406-409.
Segura, M., Castell, C., Baeza, R., & Guillén, G. (2015). Evaluation of gym users diet with body dosmorphia. Nutricion Hospitalaria, 324-329.
Tiggemann, M., & Miller, J. (2010). The Internet and adolescent girls’ weight satisfaction and drive for thinness. Sex Roles, 63, 79-90.Zubcevic-Basic, N. (2013). 'Bigorexia' Eating our Men and Boys. The Hoopla
Buy and download up to 400 infographics!Buy infographics
About Ben Cochrane
Sport & Exercise Psychology graduate. Currently a MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology (BPS routeway) Student at the University of Chichester. Interested in several facets of Sport and Exercise Psychology, notably; human motivation, health behaviour change and elite youth athletes. Keen footballer and fitness enthusiast.