You work out because you want to be healthier. Or look better. Have more fun in your life. Bigorexia is the opposite: You work out because you can’t help it.
Sometimes how we see ourselves and how others see us can differ: I think I look cool in pink polo shirts, while you feel they make me look like an oversized popsicle. A sickening sweet popsicle at that.
That simply is life and those differences in perception are what actually make life interesting. The problem only starts when the image we have of ourselves is far removed from reality and we become obsessed about non-existing or minor problems.
Although not entirely related, one popular example for this is “anorexia nervosa”, a condition mostly affecting young girls that alters the perception they have of their bodies. They will feel they are too big or fat, even when their body weight is already life threatening low.
To us it is absolutely clear they are not, because what they see as fat around their thighs or tummies we correctly identify as loose skin or the protruding pelvic bone. But they can’t; their minds tell them something different.
Something similar can happen in men who work out: They feel they are too small, no matter how muscular they already are. In essence, it is the opposite of anorexia and was therefore coined “bigorexia”, sometimes also referred to as “vigorexia”, “muscle dysmorphia” or “Adonis Complex”.
“What’s Wrong With Getting Bigger?”
There is nothing wrong with working out. Of course not. In fact, it should be encouraged. But what if it takes over your life? Consider the man interviewed in this video:
No doubt he is way more muscular than the average. But he isn’t able to see this, because he too has a skewed self-perception and he may endlessly keep striving for perfection. This is doing neither body nor mind any good. Real fitness is about bettering life quality, but this is about frustration, social isolation and ultimately damage to the body.
Frustration because the ultimate goal is unattainable and you will keep feeling inadequate; social isolation because you may try to force it and devote more and more time to working out; damage to your body because you may start injuring yourself from working out too hard and too often or at some point can’t get bigger naturally and may try illegal and possibly dangerous drugs.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder
The symptoms were first recognized in a 1993 study, but it took until 1997 that a formal term for bigorexia, “muscle dysmorphia”, was coined. Since then it has been classified as belonging to a group of illnesses called “Body Dysmorphic Disorder” (BDD), which sometimes also is colloquially described as “imagined ugliness “.
The ICD-10, the international manual for classification of diseases, summarizes them like this:
The essential feature is a persistent preoccupation with the possibility of having one or more serious and progressive physical disorders. Patients manifest persistent somatic complaints or a persistent preoccupation with their physical appearance. Normal or commonplace sensations and appearances are often interpreted by patients as abnormal and distressing, and attention is usually focused upon only one or two organs or systems of the body. Marked depression and anxiety are often present, and may justify additional diagnoses.
Bigorexia’s discovery and inclusion in here is fairly recent, most likely because until the last couple of decades it was mainly women who were concerned with their physical appearance, while for men looks were much less important.
These days men experience much the same pressure as women, as now they too are the target of advertisements and commercials that focus on their looks and this plays on one of the core ingredients of BDD: low self-esteem. Those suffering from it may get obsessed with a defect they perceive about themselves, that either is only minor or doesn’t even exist, and feel that if just that defect was cured, they would feel well.
But they won’t, because they never get to the true core of the problem. Women with a BDD will often get plastic surgery after plastic surgery, because once one “flaw” is taken care off, they will almost immediately detect another. Often this is connected with mood, anxiety and eating disorders.
Signs And Symptoms Of Bigorexia
For men with bigorexia, the symptoms look a bit different. These are the signs most often reported by those suffering from it:
- You check yourself in the mirror ten or more times a day
- You frequently skip meeting with friends or other social events to not interrupt your workout schedule
- You are obsessed with controlling the amount of food you eat and what it consists of
- You use steroids or keep using them even if you already suffer from their side effects (gynecomastia, aggression, acne etc.)
- You avoid going to the beach or other places where you wear little clothing, because you are ashamed of your body
- You avoid having sex, out of fear it will drain energy necessary for your workouts
- You think people who tell you you are quite muscular and big are lying to you or don’t understand you
- You chastise yourself for not working out hard enough
If you find yourself saying “yes” to four or more of these points, you may have bigorexia.
What To Do About It
When you take a deep, hard look at your behavior and feelings and admit to yourself something may be going wrong, then you have already taken a step in the right direction.
Without acknowledging the fact, nobody will be able to help you. If your family, friends and peers already tried to convince you about having a problem, then this might be a good time to stop and think about it, instead of brushing their concerns aside.
If you choose a local mental health counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist, be sure to describe your feelings and behavior and how much distress they cause for you. Even professionals sometimes have problems seeing behind the muscular and healthy looking body and recognize the underlying stress.
Most often treatment will take the form of a cognitive behavioral therapy, allowing you to get to terms with your body and yourself. In some cases this can also be aided with medications that reduce the most distressing behavior.
Pictures courtesy of Lin Mei.