Body image concerns have become increasingly common in recent years. This is largely the result of photoshopped celebrity images and social media making us feel inadequate and overly critical of how we look. But while body image worries are notoriously associated with women, men also suffer. In fact, the pressure for young men to be strong and muscular can lead to a mental health condition known as muscle dysmorphia.

What is muscle dysmorphia?

Muscle dysmorphia is a form of body dysmorphic disorder, which is a mental health condition that causes the individual to spend excessive amounts of time worrying about perceived flaws with their appearance. But with muscle dysmorphia, the focus is particularly on how muscular the individual perceives themselves to be. Ironically, what they see in the mirror can often be distorted and create a feeling of inadequacy.

Another term for this condition is ‘bigorexia’ and it’s a condition that primarily affects men, though women can be affected too. People with bigorexia can spend hours upon hours at the gym, striving to get stronger and physically bigger, and their dietary intake can be affected too.

What are the symptoms?

Muscle dysmorphia is commonly associated with eating disorders. Many of the symptoms can be similar, such as anxiety around mealtimes, a preoccupation with appearance, and being overly critical of oneself. Some of the common signs of a person suffering from muscle dysmorphia include:

  • Feeling as though you can’t miss a workout
  • Continuing to work out even when you’re injured or unwell
  • Checking your bodily appearance constantly
  • Spending hours in the gym every day
  • Neglecting other commitments to work out
  • Taking steroids and sports supplements

This condition has a huge impact on the lives of those who struggle with it. Research suggests that 1 in 10 men who use gyms in the UK live with this illness, and as many as 1 million Brits use performance-enhancing drugs. It can be hard for someone struggling with this disorder to realise that they have a problem, even if other people tell them how great they look.

How are men tackling muscle dysmorphia?

This form of body dysmorphia results in individuals spending long periods of time at the gym, but it’s not something they enjoy. While someone who has a healthy perspective on eating and exercise may enjoy the adrenalin burst from a workout, someone with muscle dysmorphia may well hate every second of their time working out. Exercise in these instances is seen as a necessity, not a pleasure.

There’s also the increased risk that people with this condition will try to find other ways to boost their physique, such as by taking supplements, using protein powders, and placing limitations on their diet. In some cases, men may even take to extreme measures, such as plastic surgery, to achieve their desired look with pectoral or calf implants and liposuction.

How to deal with dysmorphia

Surgeries, protein shakes and supplements don’t deal with the root problem of muscle dysmorphia, as it’s a mental illness that can linger regardless of whether your physical appearance changes. But because the condition is relatively new, there hasn’t been as much research into the best way to treat it. Much of the treatment methods used for this problem are centred around the ways in which body dysmorphia is treated.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one such treatment. It is a talk therapy that can be done alone or as part of a group. CBT requires you to work with a therapist to build coping strategies to combat your toxic beliefs around masculinity and your body image, so you can find ways to deal with your thoughts and feelings. If you’ve used steroids or performance-enhancing drugs to improve your physique, you may also require endocrine treatment to balance your hormones.

Many people who have muscle dysmorphia resist treatment. However, recognising that you have an issue and need professional help will give you the best chance of overcoming this challenge and help you regain a healthier outlook. It’s only when you are willing to admit that you have an unhealthy perspective on dieting and your body that you can really deal with the underlying problems that are causing it. With a trained medical professional, you’ll be able to tailor your treatment plan for the best chance of success.

Final thoughts

 If you’ve noticed that you’ve been struggling with some of the symptoms of body dysmorphia, it’s important to get support. The aftermath of muscle dysmorphia can be devastating, not just to your mental health but physically as well, and it can affect other areas of your life. Because awareness of this condition is low, many people suffering from it are undiagnosed. But with the right treatment, it is possible to overcome it and develop a healthier relationship with food, exercise and your body.