Being Slightly Different: Muscle Dysmorphia

By Gary Walsh

Muscle Dysmorphia, as described in the book The Adonis Complex by Pope, Philips & Olivardia, is an excessive pre-occupation with body size and muscularity. A distorted body image with similar symptoms as anorexia nervosa. It has been called 'bigorexia nervosa' or 'reverse anorexia'. People with anorexia nervosa see themselves as fat when they are actually too thin. People with muscle dysmorphia feel ashamed of looking too small when they are actually massive. You may also be able to relate to me when I say that personally, I have suffered many of the symptoms which is why I use active recuperation to try to prevent dependency. I have, in the past, been too fat and too thin on the same day, maybe even in the same minute. However, I would say that the feeling was no more than a little quirky and not something I would not have a joke about.

Men and women with muscle dysmorphia risk physical destruction. Training through pain and injuries, on ultra-low fat or zero carb diets, training whilst desperately hungry, taking steroids and other illegal or legal drugs to gain more size and all because they think they don't look good enough. For me, there is a very personal and fine line between excellent self-discipline, good diet and sensible training and obsessive muscle dysmorphia. That line can't really be drawn by people that are considered normal or we would all be fat and lazy with no extreme creative individual pursuits that are risky but ultimately make life worth living.

The problem with muscle dysmorphia or any other such issues for males, is that only women are supposed to have such problems. To communicate anxieties about their bodies or physical appearance, for most men, is to violate the taboo. It is not manly to worry about such topics and so they repress their self-criticism rather than face the perceived ridicule that would come with disclosure.

For an individual to be diagnosed with muscle dysmorphia, they must display all of the attributes in the list that follows shortly. These are used by mental health professionals to categorise and control individuals, as with any form of social control, it is subtle manipulation of individual freedom. These behaviours are 'wrong' because 'they' – whoever 'they' are – have decided it is not to be considered the norm, even though the problems are caused by media representations and corporate advertising that encourages a muscular physique on a massive scale. No effort is made to change the messages being sent out as they produce profit for the greed machine. Muscle dysmorphia is a direct result of these forces for profit: creations of a greedy society. That may just become the norm and be accepted as a type of human amongst all the other categories and types of human.

The diagnostic criteria for muscle dysmorphia, much of it is already considered normal amongst men:

  1. A preoccupation with the idea that one's body is not sufficiently lean and muscular. Associated behaviours include long hours lifting weights and excessive attention to diet.
  2. The preoccupation is manifested by at least two of the following four criteria:
    1. The individual often gives up social, occupational or recreational activities because of a compulsive need to maintain his or her workout and diet regime.
    2. The individual avoids situations where his or her body is exposed to others, or endures such situations only with marked distress or intense anxiety.
    3. The preoccupation about the inadequacy of body size or musculature causes clinically significant distress or dysfunction in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.
    4. The individual continues to work out, diet or use performance enhancing substances despite knowledge of adverse physical or psychological consequences.
  3. The primary focus of the preoccupation and behaviours is on being too small or inadequately muscular, as opposed to fear of being fat as in anorexia nervosa, or a preoccupation only with other aspects of appearance as in other forms of localised dysmorphic disorder.

Whilst I feel I have a responsibility to bring muscle dysmorphia into others awareness, I have mixed feelings about the issue. Almost all of the behaviours listed could be considered normal or even exceptional and to be admired by others.

Perhaps the issue in our lives and the solution to how much is too much is to be found in whether we can operate competently in society. If an obsession – any obsession – makes us incompetent in society then it needs to be addressed and balanced in a way that allows us to progress across the whole of life.

Often bodybuilders, weight trainers, fitness fanatics or whatever label we have fixed to us, are self-disciplined and single minded in order to get the required results. That is being slightly different to the norm of being half-arsed and trying a little bit of everything before deciding it is all too much effort. For my part, the thought I like is being slightly different and should be celebrated and, providing all the pieces of a balanced body, psyche and society commitments are met, I have no real issue with unique sub-cultures such as bodybuilders. I do agree that being big can become an obsession with many men often to the detriment of a good physique. I have also been around long enough, over 40 years training to know that much of the behaviour listed are just phases that individuals pass through as they mature. In a healthy society individuals do mature and progress.

There is a tendency for society to be constantly moved towards a uniformity, a sameness, a middle ground – some might say mediocrity – where those minorities who wish to be slightly different are constantly urged or pressured to conform. It could be argued, and I for one would argue that conformity appeals to those in power because a society full of conformist robots is much easier to control. My thoughts are to preserve the differences between people and a good start would be to stop categorising and labelling any individual living courageously apart from the norms. When a society is produced in which all are trying to conform to some centrally defined criteria and where people are risk-adverse for fear of being ostracised for being different. Such a philosophy virtually eliminates individuality and creativity or makes any courageous and creative individuals life exceedingly difficult and uncomfortable – if not impossible –to endure purely for the 'sin' of being slightly different from the herd.