How may a 300-pound bodybuilder compare with a 60-pound 15-year-old battling with anorexia? In addition to shared human genotypes and phenotypes, they may be connected by an eating disorder. Although we often associate the word “eating disorder” with women from the 15-25 year age group, the National Eating Disorders Association estimates that 10 million American men struggle with an eating disorder. In addition to the well-known anorexia and bulimia, muscle dysmorphia (“bigorexia”) is currently on the rise, and affecting men as young as 19, according to psychologist Dr. Lauren Muhlheim.
Muscle dysmorphia is sometimes labeled “reverse anorexia,” because although both disorders revolve around a fixation with food, exercise, and weight control, individuals with muscle dysmorphia are plagued by the the desire to gain weight and look muscular. This disorder particularly affects men and an estimated 10% of bodybuilders are said to have some form of the disorder, according to cognitive behavior therapist and chairman of the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, Rob Wilson.
As stated in The National Eating Disorders Collaboration article, “Eating Disorders in Males,” muscle dysmorphia is often rooted in a sufferer’s experiences with bullying and childhood obesity. Additional causes include genetic factors; sports and activities with a strong focus on weight (i.e. weight lifting, football, bodybuilding, wrestling); and media portrayals of the “perfect” V-shaped body with abs.
Consequences of muscle dysmorphia include: injuries caused by excessive exercising; muscle, joint, kidney, tendon, heart, and/or liver damage; and heart problems. In addition to health issues that stem directly from the eating disorder, people who struggle with muscle dysmorphia are known to take steroids; in fact, Dr. Muhlheim states that over 50% of men with muscle dysmorphia have reported steroid abuse. While steroid use promotes muscle growth, “Muscle dysmorphia: One in 10 men in gyms are believed to have ‘bigorexia,’” a September 21, 2015 BBC article by Athar Ahmad, Nicholas Rotherham and Divya Talwar, attributes its use to “hair loss, testicle shrinkage and increased risk of heart and liver problems.”
According to “Muscle dysmorphia: One in 10 men in gyms are believed to have ‘bigorexia,’” a September 21, 2015 BBC article by Athar Ahmad, Nicholas Rotherham and Divya Talwar, symptoms of muscle dysmorphia include: “working out compulsively; abuse of supplements and constant drinking of protein shakes; training while injured; and prioritising working out over family and social life,” (Ahmad, et al., 2015).
Treatment for body dysmorphia is similar to that for individuals with anorexia, as it is based on cognitive-behavioral therapy and seeks to moderate food and exercise and reduce obsessive thoughts. However, as with most eating disorders, complications to treating males with bigorexia arise from the misconception that eating disorders are feminine by nature and that it isn’t manly to seek for help. These misconceptions often result in affected men to either be diagnosed late or go undiagnosed, which in turn may cause depression or even suicide. Given the severity of the consequences of the disorder as well as the lack of acknowledgment of male body dissatisfaction, the need for awareness on male eating disorders has become increasingly important. As a society, we must teach individuals of all genders, from a very young age to be accepting of their body types.
Ahmad, Rotherham, and Talwar, (September 21, 2015). Muscle dysmorphia: One in 10 men in gyms believed to have ‘bigorexia.’ BBC. Retrieved October 18, 2017, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/34307044/muscle-dysmorphia-one-in-10-men-in-gyms-believed-to-have-bigorexia
Chatterjee, R. (October 7, 2013). For Boys With Eating Disorders, Finding Treatment Can Be Hard. NPR. Retrieved October 22, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/10/07/229164585/for-boys-with-eating-disorders-finding-treatment-can-be-hard.
“Eating Disorders in Males,” (n.d.). The National Eating Disorders Collaboration. Retrieved October 18, 2017 from http://www.nedc.com.au/eating-disorders-in-males.
Muhlheim, L. (2014). Muscle Dysmorphia. Mirror Mirror. Retrieved October 18, 2017, from https://www.mirror-mirror.org/muscle-dysmorphia.htm.