The Rise of Muscle Dysmorphia
When we think of eating disorders, many of us think of Anorexia Nervosa, whereby many of us picture the stereotypical, young female restricting her diet to achieve a very thin physique. Not many of us picture a male experiencing these dietary restrictions; nor would many of us think immediately of a male engaging in problematic eating behaviours in order to look more muscular.
For years, researchers and clinicians have raised concerns about the pressures on women to achieve and maintain a thin physique (Ousley et al., 2008). However, it is only relatively recently that attention has begun focusing on the pressures to achieve a specific body type that men are exposed to. Like women, these body image pressures can negatively impact on men’s health and well-being.
Research shows that body image concerns are becoming increasingly prevalent among young males, yet our awareness and conversations surrounding them are not; with some referring to this as the “silent crisis” of men’s health (Affleck et al., 2018).
Statistics indicate that 1 in 4 eating disorders occur in males (Sweeting et al., 2015). One concern of particular importance among men is the desire to achieve a more lean and muscular physique. This desire can be especially problematic when it starts to significantly interfere with one’s work or personal life, or if it starts to cause significant distress.
What is muscle dysmorphia?
When it reaches this level, it may meet criteria for a psychological disorder known as Muscle Dysmorphia. Muscle dysmorphia is a subtype of Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Although this is not a specific eating disorder, symptoms of BDD often occur concurrently with eating disorders.
Often described as ‘Reverse Anorexia’ or ‘Bigorexia’, this disorder is characterised by a fixation on the belief that one is not muscular or lean enough (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). People with Muscle Dysmorphia report negative attitudes towards their body which strongly impacts their overall wellbeing.
Individuals with this condition also experience intense anxiety or distress during times when their body is exposed (for example, in changerooms) and often avoid these situations. Whilst this disorder can occur in females, it currently disproportionately affects males, making it an important focus for body image and eating disorder research in men.
Symptoms of Muscle Dysmorphia include a rigid commitment to a specific and restricted diet, and an intense dedication to exercise. This can sometimes be to the detriment of other important activities, such as the person’s ability to function positively at work or in relationships.
For example, in case studies documented in research publications, some individuals with Muscle Dysmorphia have reported missing significant life events such as weddings or work because they interfered with their gym regime (Dawes & Mankin, 2004).
Like eating disorders, this anxiety-based disorder can also lead to physical complications due to the intensity of workouts, restrictive diets, and use of substances (such as steroids) (Pope et al., 1997).
The prevalence of the disorder and muscularity concerns more generally in men appears to be growing. Yet, so far the causes of Muscle Dysmorphia are relatively unknown. Some researchers believe the causes of Muscle Dysmorphia may be similar to other eating disorders, such as low self-esteem, perfectionism and the importance of appearance to one’s self-worth. Many researchers also believe the desire to be more muscular is related to the increased presentation of highly muscular bodies in movies, social media and even children’s toys.
Additionally, in 2016 it was reported that less than 1% of all the body image and eating disorder research was conducted exclusively on males (Murray et al., 2016), highlighting the urgent need for more research to better understand how eating disorders also affect the male population.
Researchers at the Australian National University are seeking to address the limited research on this topic. We aim to first build a scientific understanding of male body image concerns, specifically Muscle Dysmorphia, by identifying its risk factors and core clinical features. This research will then aim to contribute to the evidence-base informing treatment.
Over 1 million people in Australia are currently experiencing eating disorders, and many of these are men. Many of these men are suffering in silence with body image issues and they need our help.
Cassidy is currently completing her PhD in Clinical Psychology at the Australian National University. Her interest in male body image began when she started volunteering for a non-for-profit organisation focused on delivering mental health programs for young men. She often heard these young men expressing concerns about their appearance, and she wondered about the level of community awareness on male’s body image concerns. Since then, her aim is to build community awareness on this topic as well as understand male eating disorders and body image concerns among men.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
- Website: https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm
- Affleck, W., Carmichael, V., & Whitley, R. (2018). Men’s mental health: Social determinants and implications for services. SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.1177/0706743718762388
- Dawes, J., & Mankin, T. (2004). Muscle dysmorphia. Strength and conditioning journal, 26(2), 24-25. https://doi.org/10.1519/00126548-200404000-00004
- Ousley, L., Cordero, E. D., & White, S. (2008). Eating Disorders and Body Image of Undergraduate Men. Journal of American college health, 56(6), 617-622. https://doi.org/10.3200/JACH.56.6.617-622
- Pope, H. G., Gruber, A. J., Choi., P. Y., Olivardia, R., & Phillips, K. A. . (1997). Muscle dysmorphia: An under-recognized form of body dysmorphic disorder. Psychosomatics, 38, 548-557.
- Murray, S. B., Griffiths, S., & Mond, J. M. (2016). Evolving eating disorder psychopathology: Conceptualising muscularity-oriented disordered eating. British journal of psychiatry, 208(5), 414-415. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.bp.115.168427
- Sweeting, H., Walker, L., MacLean, A., Patterson, C., Räisänen, U., & Hunt, K. (2015). Prevalence of eating disorders in males: A review of rates reported in academic research and UK mass media. International Journal of Men’s Health, 14(2), 86. https://doi.org/10.3149/jmh.1402.86
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