Muscle Dysmorphia aka Bigorexia Becoming Epidemic?

Bigorexia is the common term for muscle dysmorphia (MDM), a disorder characterized by a fear of being too small, and perceiving oneself as being too weak, even though a person may actually be large and muscular. Surprisingly, this disorder occurs primarily in males with a well-defined, muscular build. It may affect, to some degree, 1 in 10 gym goers.

Dissatisfaction with your body can be a risk factor for the onset of eating disorders, for the abuse of anabolic androgenic steroids (AAS) and can cause issues with self-image that can lead to related psychiatric symptoms. It’s pretty serious.

To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the fitness goal of gaining muscle (hypertrophy). It improves performance, vitality, strength, power, functionality, and self esteem. It’s just that sometimes, if conditions are right in the minds of men and women, things get a little out of control.

Most experts believe muscle dysmorphia is actually a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, subcategorized as a body dysmorphia disorder. When people hear OCD, they normally think about excessive hand washing or bizarre daily rituals. When applied to body image, the obsession become more with how the body looks, or in this case, the level of muscularity and leanness. The compulsion, then, is to achieve perfection in muscularity and leanness.

Symptoms of muscle dysmorphia (MDM)

Typical symptoms of MDM include already muscular individuals spending a great deal of time thinking their muscular build is undersized or underdeveloped and focusing on a quest for more definition and tone in their muscles. It is important to note that while the majority of sufferers are male, MDM is also found in women, but little data has been collected for that population.

Other behaviors that may signal MDM may include:

  • many hours lifting weights
  • constant mirror checking
  • extreme attention to diet
  • lifting in spite of injury
  • heavy spending on supplements
  • exercise addition (including frequently extreme weight lifting sessions)
  • deviant eating patterns
  • neglecting family, friends and other opportunities in order to exercise
  • use of anabolic steroids to enhance muscle mass

Often people suffering from muscle dysmorphia are professional body builders, personal trainers, athletes or men and women who compete in body building competitions.

Causes of muscle dysmorphia

The causes of MDM are related to biological, psychological and social factors. There is evidence that muscle dysmorphia may be genetic. Men with lower self esteem are much more likely to have muscle dysmorphia. Society, especially sports, places great pressures on men to have an “ideal body”. These are much the same factors that can cause some men and women, particular those without a natural muscular body type, to become anorexic in a quest to be thin.

Situations that may increase the risk factor for developing MDM include:

  • Work environments where weight, image, and appearance is an important factor, such as in modeling, acting, ice skating, dancing, personal training, or body building
  • A history of being bullied or teased in childhood
  • Past trauma, including seeing a mother experience domestic violence

Identification and treatment

Most people with some form of muscle dysmorphia do not realize they have a problem and do not seek treatment. Medical practitioners are often trained to spot symptoms, but friends and family can look out for them too.

At the gym, personal trainers are on the front lines and need to be well versed in recognizing the signs and symptoms of MDM, with prevention serving as the ultimate goal. Athletic trainers can recognize lesser forms of MDM by simply being familiar with the dispositions of their clients as well as with the common signs and symptoms of MDM.

When questioning an athlete suspected of having a body image disorder like MDM, the trainer should take a similar approach to that used with anorexia or bulemia. You must always treat the athlete with the utmost respect and empathy. Being realistic and forthright is important, too. Raising concerns and suggesting they talk with their physician will ultimately improve the quality of life of the client. Be aware that as a trainer, you are not a medical profession, and should not attempt to diagnose or treat any condition. So while encouragement to talk about inner feelings may help you convince them to get help, you should not attempt to make specific recommendations. Ultimately a diagnosis and treatment should be placed in the hands of a medical professional.

Muscle dysmorphia is a curable type of body dysmorphic disorder, and therefore, individuals suffering from this illness can overcome the disorder with proper treatment. In any case, it is important to be supportive of anyone with a body image disorder. You should no allow others to tease or make fun of someone’s body or muscle size, and shouldn’t connect a person’s worth with their body size or musculature.

Read more:

Muscle dysmorphia recognition and treatment

Muscle dysmorphia study

Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness