Posted on 19 March 2019
We all have a friend who is big into their fitness and appearance. Some of us are that friend and it can feel good to be the fit, muscular and strong one in the group. However, the pressure to have a ripped and toned body as a guy can have sinister side effects. With the explosion of social media onto the human consciousness over the last decade we have become subjected to a litany of imagery depicting powerfully built and facially impressive men. We can now compare ourselves to the world through our screens and may find ourselves inadequate in comparison to the incredible, digitally enhanced, figures online. This, and other factors can lead some men to develop what is known as body dysmorphia.
What is body dysmorphia (and muscle dysmorphia)?
In the peer-reviewed journal Australian Family Physician, body dysmorphia is defined as the unhealthy “preoccupation with one or more perceived defects or flaws in physical appearance that appear slight or are not observable to others, and repetitive behaviours or mental acts related to the perceived flaw”. The article goes on to mention that there is a subset of this disorder known as muscle dysmorphia. Muscle dysmorphia, as you might imagine, is the individual’s unhealthy obsession with a perceived lack of muscle, even if the person appears muscular to the external observer.
Body dysmorphia is all about self-perception and causes the sufferer to obsess over their body unnecessarily – Courtesy of Videoblocks
What it’s like to live with body dysmorphia as a man
In August 2017 ABC’s Lateline posted an insightful interview with an Australian fitness coach that provides a glimpse into how it feels to live with muscle dysmorphia. Kevin Gatti, the fitness coach who suffered from muscle dysmorphia, explains that he would obsess over his food and workout regime. He would feel guilt after a missed workout despite a packed routine and felt that the energy spent trying to maintain his identity in the gym was not conducive to a life of contentment.
Gatti’s experience is echoed in another ABC article addressing muscle dysmorphia or ‘bigorexia’. The Life Matters article highlights the crushing anxiety and aggressive dieting used by men suffering from bigorexia and explains how it leads to steroid use and psychological issues. The experience of Nathyn Costello, who suffered from muscle dysmorphia, is strikingly similar to Kevin Gatti’s. Costello explains that he would not take his shirt off unless he was under a specific level of body fat and that he would avoid social activities to reduce the amount of food he ate outside his strict diet.
The media and body dysmorphia
Instagram and movie stars are celebrated in the media for their muscularity without the reality of their rigorous schedule being explored or even acknowledged. This lack of context is dangerous as young, impressionable, men are led to believe these bodies are replicable naturally. The Instagram star’s body is seen without an understanding of the hours he spent in the gym or the digital and pharmaceutical enhancements that allow him his body. Without context, it is impossible for men to fully understand the images and media they are consuming. Not everyone can devote the hours necessary to develop a body that is exceptional and so to compare ourselves to those who can is dangerous.
The changing standards of Hollywood are a visually powerful way to gauge how the male body is idealized. This trend towards muscularity holds for Batman, Superman and many other action heroes, not just Bond. – Courtesy of Franchise GlitzDealer
What to do if you suspect you or a friend suffer from body or muscle dysmorphia
Body and muscle dysmorphia in men is real and often goes unrecognised, to the tremendous detriment of the afflicted. If you are worried about your own, or a friend’s physical or mental health it is important to talk to your doctor and accept the help that is offered, the sooner, the better. Medical professionals are trained and equipped to deal with body and muscle dysmorphia and can help avoid the crushing toll of the disorder.
- Follow extreme workout or diet regimes
- Obsess over small or seemingly inconsequential physical issues
- Miss social activities to hit the gym or to avoid eating out
- Base their identity on their musculature or physique
- Are defensive of their bodies but also struggle to accept compliments
- Constantly check and worry about their appearance when at a social event
- Use anabolic steroids
A particularly telling sign of muscle dysmorphia is the use of anabolic steroids in response to bodily dissatisfaction. Muscle dysmorphia has been strongly correlated with anabolic steroid abuse so if a mate has recently started using the drugs encourage him to seek a professional opinion.
Body and muscle dysmorphia can lead to, or accompany, long term mental health issues including: marked self-consciousness, social embarrassment, isolation, intimacy failure, social anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. Eventually, if left untreated, body dysmorphia and its associated long term effects can cause suicidal thinking. All these outcomes have a profound effect on a man’s mental health, and so we should take extra care in trying to spot them. Keep in mind that these symptoms may also suggest body/muscle dysmorphia in women.
Let’s Make a Move
Often, closest friends and family are the best resources for detecting the disorder as sufferers may struggle to recognise their issues. If you notice a mate suffering from the symptoms mentioned above have a chat to them. If they have become obsessed with their bodies, take significant psychological strain when missing workouts, or believe themselves to be ‘small’ when they are actually muscular, keep an eye on them as they may suffer from body dysmorphia. Be sure to remind them that, despite what the media may lead one to believe, men can have meaningful and profound lives with any body type.
Part of being a good mate, peer, partner or family member is taking an active part in the mental health of your friends. So, check in with them often. Who knows, you might just help them out of a tight spot.
Resources and links
Below are some additional resources to refer to if you have further queries:
- Men’s line Australia free phone counselling: 1300 78 99 78
- Men’s line Australia online counselling: https://mensline.org.au/
- Butterfly National helpline: 1800 334 673 (don’t let the name fool you, the Butterfly foundation specifically deals with men who suffer from eating disorders or body image issues).
- Health direct has a great article that lists many counselling services for men in Australia: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/mental-health-helplines
Stay healthy gentlemen!
By Gabriel Segal
Gabriel is currently completing a double degree in international studies and finance. He takes great interest in what history and contemporary experience can teach us about living a full life.