Most people are familiar with the term anorexia nervosa and the idea that pressure to conform to cultural standards of thinness and beauty drives people to starve their own bodies. But there is another side to this coin. In 1997, the term Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder (MDD), also referred to as “bigorexia,” was coined to represent a growing “reverse anorexic” condition.
Feeling Too Small
People struggling with MDD/Bigorexia find themselves caught in a cyclical pattern of working to increase their muscle development but never quite making it to their goal. They perceive their bodies as being too small, despite regular weight lifting routines and regimens intended to increase their muscle development. This perceived lack of muscle size makes them believe they are “ugly.” Although both genders can develop the disorder, it predominantly impacts males, presumably due to cultural pressures to be muscular and strong.
Not An Eating Disorder, Though Can Have ED Aspects
Those with MDD/Bigorexia are typically not as concerned about getting “fat” or losing weight as in other forms of disordered eating. They are primarily disturbed by their lack of muscle definition and size. Because of this, bigorexia is not an eating disorder. It is considered to be a variant (or subtype) of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). Disordered eating practices, however, may be employed by those who are struggling with this disorder.
At Risk Groups
It is common to find males and females in competitive weight lifting who meet the criteria for MDD/bigorexia. It is believed that the increased media spotlight on developed bodies and the desire to win competitions may feed this disorder. With the popularity of magazines like Men’s Health, which promote a “cut” look hardly attainable for most men, this type of disorder is on the rise among men, who also struggle with other types of disordered eating triggered by similar ideals.
A Warped View
As with people with anorexia nervosa who believe they are fat in spite of evidence to the contrary, Bigorexia sufferers are convinced their flaws exist (lack of muscle development) in spite of reassurances from friends and family members. Some wear baggy clothes to hide their bodies. Others who struggle may wear tight fitting clothing to display their muscular stature, even while still feeling they have not met their body building goals.
While those with bigorexia place a great emphasis on the size of their body, they are not necessarily self-centered. For some, their preoccupation may cause them to actually seem shy and avoid social situations.
Bigorexia has several negative consequences: the preoccupation may cause individuals to miss important events, continue training through pain or broken bones, even lose their job/significant relationships over their workout schedule. As mentioned above, it also carries an inherent risk of creating disordered eating patterns in the individual.
What Do I Do Now?
If you are struggling with bigorexia and/or other forms of BDD, the first thing you need to know is you are not alone. As with any disorder, we strongly recommend finding a professional counselor, doctor or therapist with whom you can share your concerns, and get onto a path toward balance and peace. For more information on finding the help you need, read our article on Finding Treatment.
Additionally, we would recommend Dr. Roberto Olivardia’s book, The Adonis Complex, which discusses the obsession with muscle size and body building.