‘Bigorexia’ and the modern man

mark rackley psychologist putney

Most people are familiar with the term anorexia and the idea that pressure to conform to cultural standards of thinness and beauty drives people to starve their own bodies. In 1997, the term Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder (MDD), also referred to as “bigorexia,” was introduced to represent a growing “reverse anorexic” condition, where people strive to get bigger and not thinner.

“Bigorexia” or MDD is a psychological condition where the person is anxious about their lack of muscle definition and size. “Bigorexia” is not an eating disorder, rather it’s a sub-type of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). BDD is an anxiety disorder that causes a person to have a distorted view of how they look and to spend a lot of time worrying about their appearance. 

Sufferers of MDD develop obsessional thoughts about the shape and size of their bodies and never feel satisfied with what they see in the mirror. The body that the sufferer sees in the mirror is never big or muscular enough, despite contrary claims from family and friends. Other people’s opinion is discounted and the sufferer relies solely on their own perception of their body, which is what maintains the condition. 
“Bigorexia” can affect both men and women. The sufferer perceives their body as being too small, despite regular weight lifting routines and regimens intended to increase their muscle development. This then can lead to obsessive thoughts about getting bigger, negatively comparing themselves to others they believe have the ‘perfect’ body and compensatory behaviors that drive this obsession to get bigger. These compensatory behaviors may include extreme dieting, excessive exercising, steroid abuse, surgery to change body shape and withdrawal from family and friends in favor of exercising. MDD can also leave the sufferer vulnerable to becoming anxious or depressed as despite all their hard work, they never feel satisfied with the body in the mirror.

The causes of “bigorexia” are varied and have both a cultural and psychological aspect. In popular culture, male bodies are more on display and a certain body type is represented as the ‘ideal’ shape. Associated with this shape is the idea that this is the representation of masculinity and also the object of desire for others. Men are more exposed now to male bodies and also the marketing behind how to achieve this ‘ideal’ body. This is seen in growing market of the sports supplement industry. In the UK, in 2014, the sports supplement industry was worth £301m, and that figure is forecast to grow to £471m by 2018. 

On a psychological level, men who were bullied, teased or abused whilst they were young seem to be more vulnerable to developing MDD. The drive to assert and define their masculinity and power is associated with having a body shape that represents that they are powerful, tough and can protect themselves. Another associated drive is to appear to have a body shape that is desirable to others and so will bring positive attention and thus make them feel secure and desired. 

MDD can leave the sufferer distressed and also can impact on daily functioning and relationships. Should you be concerned that you may have or someone you know may have MDD, help is available. Awareness of the problem is the first and most important step and second to that is receiving support to recover. Support from family and friends can help the sufferer start to talk about it and mental health professionals can work with the sufferer to help them understand the thoughts and feelings that are driving the obsessional behavior and recover from this condition. 

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