by Gemma Mann
It’s a rare man these days who’s not pursuing the body beautiful. This is particularly apparent in the gym. Muscle tone means admiration, physical health, and lascivious looks from the ladies. Little wonder that more and more men are putting in extra time on the weights. But some are concerned that the pursuit of physical perfection is causing some men to develop a worrying obsession with growing their muscles. Is ‘Bigorexia’ really a thing? Or is it all just a misunderstanding over changing masculinity?
Health VS Looks
There are many ways in which you can safeguard your health. One of the best is to get regular exercise. It seems contradictory, therefore, to chastise anyone for devoting themselves to a good exercise regime. It is similarly beneficial to eat healthily and sensibly. However, when taken to extremes, dieting can cost lives. Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa represent a perversion of an otherwise healthy attention to diet which has devastating consequences upon the body. The causes and mechanisms of anorexia are complex, but in many cases the health-giving and sustaining properties of a diet have been superseded by concerns about appearance. When one is willing to sacrifice one’s health in order to obtain a certain look, then any behavior which may potentially alter one’s body shape can be carried to dangerous extremes. This goes for exercise just as much as for eating. ‘Exercise bulimia’, by which a sufferer attempts to purge calories through excessive exercise, is beginning to be recognized by health authorities worldwide. And a puzzling new condition called ‘Bigorexia’ is hot on its heels.
What Is ‘Bigorexia’?
‘Bigorexia’ is just one of many terms for a condition tentatively labelled ‘Muscle Dysmorphia’. The BBC estimate that one in ten men attending UK gyms suffer from the condition. Figures for the USA are harder to find but, given that the USA places more social pressure on personal appearance than most Western nations, we can infer that it’s a pretty big problem over here as well. The condition was, after all, first identified in the USA back in 1997. Since then, it’s been growing ever more problematic. Put simply, Bigorexics believe themselves to be small and puny, no matter how much muscle they actually have. Furthermore, they become extremely anxious if ever they must spend more than a small amount of time away from the gym. They may even believe that they can physically feel their muscles shrinking or becoming ‘watery’ if they have to miss a workout. It’s a condition which causes crippling insecurity and deep anxiety. Worryingly, it can also lead to some pretty dangerous activities as sufferers desperately seek the muscular body they believe themselves to be lacking.
Too much exercise is not necessarily a good thing. Overdoing it in the gym without giving your body any recovery time can lead to some fairly serious health consequences over time. Continually micro-tearing your muscles without giving them an opportunity to repair and build over the damage will actually result in weaker muscles – meaning that many bigorexics become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not to mention the stress put upon body and mind in almost every respect by a too-gruelling workout schedule. The hugely protein-packed diet undertaken by many seeking desperately to expand their musculature can also damage the heart and kidneys, as well as frequently causing huge expenditure. Perhaps most worrying of all, however, is the potential for those anxious to the point of obsession about the size of their muscles to purchase and use anabolic steroids. The problems with and dangers of steroids are well documented, so we need not go into detail here. Suffice to say that anything which encourages the vulnerable to use such drugs is deeply undesirable.
Some, however, have noted that ‘Bigorexia’ may be nothing more than a symptom of changing masculinity. Studies have shown that men are just as vulnerable to idealized media-representations of male bodies as women are to stick-thin models and so on. Men these days are more interested in looking good than their predecessors were – and this is perhaps something with which society is as yet unfamiliar. A man who talks a lot about the way his body looks is as yet something of an oddity within our cultural consciousness – yet becoming an increasingly noticed presence. There are undoubtedly many men out there who are suffering from serious anxieties over their bodies. These men could and should benefit from psychiatric help with their insecurities. However, we may be too quick to pathologize many other cases. Some whom we are judging as ‘Bigorexic’ may simply want to look good. Men who want to look good is no longer an uncommon phenomenon. Perhaps we should start accepting this, rather than automatically deciding that it is an aberrant behavior.