5 things men need to know about muscle dysmorphia

Muscle dysmorphia is a psychological condition affecting approximately 2% of the population, the majority of which are men. It’s a type of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) seen in 10% of weightlifters and involves an obsessive preoccupation with becoming more muscular. Researchers suspect it to be on the rise, particularly amongst younger men, but one of the main challenges remains in its secrecy; men will often not acknowledge the problem or feel too embarrassed to seek help. 

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There is no single cause of muscle dysmorphia and it is suspected to be a combination of genetic, psychological, and socio-cultural factors. This overlaps strongly with eating disorders, with muscle dysmorphia also having been referred to as ‘bigorexia’ or ‘reverse anorexia’ (30% of those with muscle dysmorphia have a co-existing eating disorder).
Raising awareness, correcting misunderstandings, and reducing stigma are key to ensuring men can recognise the problem and access appropriate support. 


5 things men need to know about muscle dysmorphia 

1. It’s nothing to do with vanity

An easy mistake to make with muscle dysmorphia is viewing it as a type of vanity or narcissism. This misconception is seen with body image issues in general, including body dysmorphic disorder, but men with muscle dysmorphia are arguably at a greater risk of being misunderstood due to the aesthetic and competitive qualities associated with weightlifting and bodybuilding. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Muscle dysmorphia is a serious psychological problem that can dominate, and ultimately ruin, a man’s life. The focus on aesthetics is tied to beliefs about the moral value of muscle, seeing the level of muscularity as a reflection of status and being more deserving of love, sex, and respect. Research suggests increased suicidal thoughts and attempts are associated with muscle dysmorphia, which further highlights how seriously this condition needs to be taken.

 2. You can never be big enough

You will never be muscular enough to satisfy your muscle dysmorphia. You can’t outlift it. No amount of time in the gym, optimised workouts, dietary changes, or supplements will result in a body you’re satisfied with. Your size and musculature are not the problem; the excessive focus on them are symptoms of the problem. Muscle dysmorphia will keep you chasing goals that are impossible to achieve, relentlessly pursuing size and pushing your body to its limits at the cost of your health and well-being.

3. There are physical and psychological consequences

The obsessive-compulsive drive to be bigger and alleviate the anxiety that comes with feeling too small can lead to a number of physical and psychological health issues. Overtraining can result in both acute and chronic injuries including muscle strains, tendonitis, stress fractures, and herniated discs. Using anabolic steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs increases the risk of liver damage, heart disease, and hormonal imbalances.

At the psychological level, the effects can be devastating. Muscle dysmorphia is often seen alongside mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and addiction. Men may sacrifice their social lives where they feel this interferes with adherence to training or strict dietary regimes, and where they may feel inadequate due to their body being on display (going swimming, for example). Impacts on sex drive and relationships are a common consequence, which further reinforces low self-esteem, as are complications with work performance and the potential for job loss.  

4. Recognise the signs

Being able to recognise the signs and symptoms of muscle dysmorphia is key to acknowledging the problem and seeking help. The main symptoms include:

  • Excessive exercise: Spending a significant amount of time working out, often at the expense of other activities or responsibilities.
    Strict dieting: Adhering to rigid dietary rules, including supplementation, which can include obsessively counting calories, tracking macros, and restricting certain food groups.
  • Body-checking: Frequently checking your body in mirrors and reflective surfaces, weighing to check for body mass increases, or measuring muscles.
    Avoidance behaviours: Restricting social situations and work activities or avoiding mirrors and reflective surfaces because of the distress caused.
  • Intrusive thoughts: Repetitive, obsessive thoughts about the value of your appearance, size, and musculature.

5. You don’t have to live this way

You can overcome muscle dysmorphia with appropriate help. Accessing psychotherapy from a qualified professional who understands the condition can help you address the factors underlying and maintaining it. Speaking with your GP is recommended, particularly where there has been use of steroids or performance-enhancing drugs, as medical treatment may be necessary.

Addressing muscle dysmorphia involves breaking free from the cycle of self-criticism, obsessive thoughts, and compulsive behaviours.  Overcoming this cycle is the key to living a rich, meaningful life. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Newton Aycliffe, Durham, DL5
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Written by Craig Lee, MSc, BA (Hons), MNCPS (Accred.), MBACP
Newton Aycliffe, Durham, DL5

Craig Lee is a counsellor and psychotherapist specialising in eating disorders and body image issues.

Find Craig on Instagram: @craigleetherapy

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