If you’re just like any other common mortal, you have probably joined a gym at least once in your life, and if you have in fact ever stepped into it, chances are you’ve felt intimidated by big, bulked men lifting enormous weights. It’s easy to feel like a tiny mouse in comparison with fitness fans, but have you ever considered they could also feel tiny… despite their obvious volume and strength?
Less known than other body dysmorphic disorders, such as anorexia, nervosa or bulimia, it is believed that bigorexia affects at least 10% of male bodybuilders, but of course women are also at risk of suffering from it. The pressure for having a muscly figure has replaced the skinny look that was prominent in the 1990s, but this kind of disorder is as scary as anorexia could be, leading sufferers of bigorexia undergo depression, isolation, hormone issues, secondary effects caused by body-building drugs and even suicide.
But what does bigorexia mean?
Bigorexia is in fact the colloquial name for an anxiety disorder also known as muscle dysmorphia, in which sufferers can’t stop thinking about the flaws in their bodies. And yes, we all have things we don’t like about our appearance (I, for instance, have very big hands), but for people suffering from body dysmorphia, their negative thoughts about their appearance end up interfering with their lives and not only at lunch time – the emotional distress caused by the way they perceive themselves can make them avoid social situations, which includes going to work.
What are the symptoms?
In the case of muscle dysmorphia, the person becomes absolutely obsessed with building muscle, to the point that they would rather lose their job before missing a training session. So no, not every fitness person is affected by bigorexia, but as it’s becoming increasingly common in gyms, I think it’s important to have a rough idea of what the symptoms are. In case you’re starting to worry about someone, this is what you should look for in their behaviour:
- Over-exercise. Doctors recommend between three and six hours of physical exercise a week. Longer training sessions don’t necessarily mean a person is obsessed about his/her body, but you will easily know when someone is spending too much time in the gym.
- Mirror checking. Don’t we all check ourselves out every time we passed in front of a shop window or when we take a lift? No? Is it just me? Whatever the case, experts say people suffering from body dysmorphia check themselves out up to 12 times a day, which is a lot when compared to the average three times a day with other weightlifters.
- Strict dieting. Having a balanced and controlled diet is important for all of us, but bigorexics take it to the next level. You will never see them eating at another person’s house or skip their diet, and if they do, they could induce themselves to vomit afterwards. This is why muscle dysmorphia can be considered as an eating disorder.
- Persistent muscle and joint soreness. Besides ignoring your body resting needs, people with muscle dysmorphia don’t miss a gym session even when injured, which of course won’t help recovery.
- Drug misuse. Anabolic steroids are commonly used by bodybuilders in order to improve their appearance.
How can bigorexia be treated?
Experts at Nebridge Health advice Muscle dysmorphia can be hard to diagnose, as muscular men and women are found attractive in our society (you just need to turn the TV on for a little bit to notice that) and men who realise that they suffer from a disorder could try really hard to hide it. But there’s still hope!
Bigorexia can be treated the same as any other mental or eating disorder, with medication and cognitive-behavioural therapy. But the first point of contact should always be your local GP.