For years we’ve known the dangers of female body dysmorphia. Young girls developing eating disorders to meet an impossible standard. But it’s no longer just an issue for women. In fact, it never was.
Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder (MDD)
Relatively recently it has come to light just how damaging popular depictions of men can be on the male psyche. Thus, the rise of muscle dysmorphic disorder: a fixation with gaining muscle mass that can never be satisfied, often leading to depression, steroid use, and an increased risk of suicide even in comparison with other body dysmorphic disorders.
The mainstream ‘attractive’ male physique has oscillated between androgyny and extreme muscularity. Think Harry Styles vs. Chris Hemsworth as Thor. At least young girls only had to worry about being skinny (though these days they’re lucky enough to be expected to be both ‘thic’ and skinny and are shamed either way. Thanks, society).
Throughout adolescence my generation was bombarded by the idea that only twinky little High School Musical era Zac Efron types are attractive. Then a few years go by and the script is flipped to the Baywatch Zac Efron, pumped and ripped. Which is arguably much worse and next to impossible to achieve as a normal person with a normal life.
Never Big Enough
Studies have shown that many animals are attracted to certain characteristics even when they’re pushed beyond the limits of what is natural. If a male butterfly is attracted to large wings, researchers can create a butterfly with absurdly, disproportionately large wings, and it won’t deter the male’s instinctual attraction to large wings — so the larger the better, I guess.
Similarly, someone with MDD will never be satisfied with their muscle mass, even when it exceeds what many might see as natural or reasonable proportions.
In a recent issue of Therapy Today, therapist Noah Sisson-Greene tells us of a client who lifts weights four times a week and avoids any aerobic exercise for fear of losing that all-important muscle mass. But it’s never enough. He wants to be bigger, bigger, bigger, off to infinity like some horrifying 1990s comic book hero à la Rob Liefeld. This client admits:
‘despite appearing “big” to other people, I was still the awkward, skinny boy I loathed throughout my adolescence and early 20s’.
What Causes It?
Noah suggests that it could be a response to the increasingly diminished role of humans as physical beings. The loss of a need for hunter-gatherer male physicality has led to an overcorrection to reclaim that role. An attempt to regain a kind of control that has disappeared from the western world.
It’s interesting to note that according to studies, more athletic, muscular children enjoy greater popularity in school, and boys who have fewer friends are more likely to turn to steroids than their more popular peers.
The question, then, is one of cause and effect. I’m no expert so take this with a pinch of salt but it seems to me that there are two causes:
- Constant bombardment from the media has led to a glorification of a dead ideal (i.e., the muscle-bound hero — think Batman, Action Man etc.)
- There is a biologically ingrained sense that more muscular people are better to be around, perhaps because their strength could keep us safe.
Most likely it’s a combination of the two, and that’s why MDD is so difficult to overcome. And even that is only possible if you know that you have it.
So, Do You Have MDD?
I never thought of myself as having any kind of body dysmorphia. But, well, that’s kind of the point. It develops subconsciously and by the time we notice it’s already had a harmful effect on our lives.
As a very overweight child I was obsessed with the Jack Skellington look. I wanted to go all the way from being obese through to overweight and healthy, and come out the other side as dangerously underweight. But it wasn’t to be. Eventually I realised that it wasn’t reasonable to expect my body to transform to that degree. My weird obsession with Lucozade and Vindaloo made sure of that. I came to accept myself within a certain, healthy, weight range.
I now see skinny people I grew up with aiming at a Herculean physique with the same destructive vigour that I so narrowly avoided. Several of my childhood friends lift weights virtually every day, some even make money out of it from social media. And some, allegedly, have taken up steroid use to fuel their growth.
If I knew them better I’d sit them down to talk about their issues. At least I would if that was the kind of thing men did …
Why Don’t We Talk About It?
Men are bad at talking. We just are. Even the chattiest men you’ve ever met.
Society has taught us to squash things down in a way that can quite literally kill us. So, in a way the rise of MDD (or awareness of it) is a good thing. Only by killing the ‘boys don’t cry’ culture can we expect to live in a mentally healthy society. And those of us that have grown up in that culture must fight the battle within ourselves.
The causes of MDD aren’t quite as obvious as the causes of female forms of body dysmorphia. Overtly, songs that deal with body shaming like Nicky Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’ and Meghan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’ represent the death of any pretence there.
Men haven’t quite reached that level yet, but it’s escalating quickly. Which makes the problem even more difficult to beat.
How Can We Stop MDD?
Only by finding the root of an issue can it ever be fully overcome. For MDD, it often boils down to insecurity.
Noah Sisson-Greene summed this up powerfully:
‘When you see a very muscular, lean man, what you see is a chemically engineered shell created through prolonged use of steroids. I am not saying for a minute that the dedication and the hours of agony and effort at the gym aren’t real, but the motivation behind them that has created these men is fuelled by internal shame, insecurity and fear’.
This is where things like mindfulness come in. Mindfulness is a bit of a buzzword lately but don’t let cynicism stop you considering it. It’s widely used by counsellors, psychotherapists and psychiatrists the world over so being deterred by its current popularity would be a shame.
If you think MDD is adversely affecting your life, your first port of call should be a professional counsellor/psychotherapist. There are plenty of free counselling services around but be aware that some have significant waiting lists. If you can afford it, please pay for sessions with charities like Mind, who do incredible work and will put your money to good use.