When Bigger Is Not Better

Dear Mr. Dad: A few months ago, you wrote a column about how boys can have eating disorders, including anorexia. Since anorexia is usually about body image, I started wondering whether boys’ body image issues could be making them obsessed with building muscle. Is that possible?

A: It’s not only possible, it’s a real condition. What you’re describing is technically called “muscle dysmorphia,” but because that’s such a mouthful, a lot of people call it “bigorexia” instead. A strange word, but one that really gets the point across. Anorexics look in the mirror and, no matter how skinny they are, they see a fat person. Bigorexics look in the mirror and, no matter how buff they are, they see a 98-pound weakling. The condition affects mainly men, but some women can suffer from it as well.

In both conditions, the media plays a big role. Unfortunately, there’s a knee-jerk tendency to put a lot of the blame on men’s magazines because they often have idealized images of women that some critics say may affect boys’ expectations for the way women should look. I’m sure there’s plenty of truth to that. But next time you’re in line at the grocery store, take a minute to browse through some of the women’s magazines. The images of women are just as sexy, alluring, and idealized. About 80 percent of girls under 18 read fashion magazines and in several studies, the number one wish for those girls is to “lose weight and keep it off.” The pressure girls feel—from males and females alike–to look like those perfectly proportioned models and actresses has a strong negative effect on their body image and, in some cases, leads to eating disorders.

This whole dynamic works the other way too. Men’s magazines, movies, and TV shows feature guys with six-pack abs, impossibly large biceps, and the kind of physique most boys could never achieve. Those same idealized (and objectifying) images show up in girls’ and women’s magazines, where they influence the expectations their readers have for men and boys.

And that gets us back to bigorexia. The pressure boys feel in our society to have the perfect body—whether it’s for themselves, the girls they’re trying to impress, or the boys they feel they’re competing with for those girls—is leading an increasing number of boys to work out obsessively, diet unnecessarily, and take all sorts of “supplements,” ranging from simple protein to testosterone and steroids.

Like anorexics, a bigorexic’s body is the center of his whole life. He works out hours every day, scrutinizes every bite he takes, and wakes up in the middle of the night to knock down muscle-building recovery shakes. The obsessions can get so consuming that homework, school attendance, career, and relationships with friends and family suffer.

Bigorexia doesn’t kill as many people as anorexia does, but it can lead to all sorts of serious mental and physical problems. These include injury and damage to joints and muscles from over-exercising, financial problems from spending too much on products and personal trainers, anxiety, and depression (which can lead to suicide). In addition, steroid use can increase blood pressure and cholesterol, interfere with liver and bowel function, cause dementia, and lead to “roid” (as in steroid) rage—sudden, unexplained flashes of anger.

Bigorexia tends to affect men in their teens and 20s. But it’s starting to hit men in their 40s, 50s, or older who want to get feel—and look—like they did when they were younger (or like they wish they would have when they were younger).

Whatcha think?

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