Muscle Dysmorphia – A Personal Account

This week The Guardian ran a great piece by Sirin Kale on the rise of muscle dysmorphia (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jul/17/gym-eat-repeat-the-shocking-rise-of-muscle-dysmorphia).

For those of you that don’t know what muscle dysmorphia is, it’s a psychological condition where the subject feels they need to be bigger and more muscular, despite already being big and muscular. Tagged “bigorexia” it can become a devastating and all consuming obsession with serious emotional, mental and physical issues.

Mainly affecting men, self-referral is rare (often only when something has gone catastrophically wrong) and so it remains often undiagnosed and untreated.

The piece is full of stories of young men who’ve take muscle dysmorphia to an extreme. The symptoms: excessive workouts, eating disorders (too much, too little and/or binges), steroid and performance enhancing drug (PED) abuse.

Worryingly muscle dysmorphia is on the increase for young men, driven by media images of rippling torsos and six packs. Bigger is better is the clear message and it’s no surprise that in the UK we’re also seeing an increase in PED abuse, particularly for young men.

I’ve got personal experience of muscle dysmorphia, and I continue to witness it within the fitness profession. In the worst cases people are physically ruined. I see a lot of lies, deceit and people misleading others and hiding from their own behaviour.

So – in the hope of helping others with this article – I felt compelled to share my story.

25 year or so ago I was a fresh faced fresher at university. I was eager to carve a new identity, to fit in, to be self-confident. To me the key was to have a good body.

I’d been a fat kid until I was sent to boarding school where a combination of lots of sport and physical and mental bullying meant I shed the pounds. I threw myself into sport and weights with vigour. Among the sports I played through my teen years and twenties were rugby, rowing and boxing – all sports that value power. That meant lots of gym time.

However, my earlier fat kid taunting told my subconscious mind that despite the often insane amounts of exercise I was doing, I was still a fat kid. It came to a head during my first year at university, where I would train for 1 to 2 hours a day, but then have a salad for lunch and dinner, convinced I was still too fat.

Of course, I was working against my body. I wanted to bulk up and get big. I should have been eating everything I could get my hands on, but convinced that the person in the mirror was still fat and my muscles weren’t showing through enough, I did the opposite. The result was I didn’t see the goals I was looking for.

I was lucky. Over time I gradually let go of my behaviour and educated myself on how to nourish my body. But it’s a pattern that persisted until fairly recently (I‘m now 46). Until about 4 years ago, I would still leave food on plates even though I’m still hungry, not eat pizza crusts and make strange, irrational food choices because there’s a voice in my head telling me if I eat it I’ll get fat.

Thankfully I’ve worked on my psyche as well as my nutritional knowledge and I love my food and my training. Most importantly I learnt to love my body too. I do often wonder though how much I may have stunted my development by being so calorie deficient during my growth spurt years.

Sadly, I see muscle dysmorphia all the time in the fitness industry, and it’s getting worse, with social media playing a massive part in fuelling it.

I know a PT who looks amazing. But he should. He obsessively weighs and measures all his food, pre-packing it in boxes each week and eating at set times. He won’t go on dates as he won’t drink or eat food that isn’t on his programme. He’s depressed, lonely and aside from this there’s another price to pay. Every 6 to 8 weeks he’ll totally lose it, have a massive weekend, binge on drink and drugs, feel terrible, beat himself up about what he’s done then commit even harder to the rigidness of his regime. He’s been running this cycle for years.

So my advice:

  • Guys – please don’t look at these big muscly dudes and think it’s natural. It’s not – and they’re putting their body under huge stress that will wreak havoc in years to come.
  • Also – realise their looks come at a HUGE price – no social life, no love life, obsessive behaviour and a general lack of energy and lust for life – not to mention erectile disfunction!
  • And finally – stop comparing. Try if you can to see your body as a glorious gift that is more than JUST aesthetics. We lack perspective in today’s ‘body conscious’ society – so cultivate gratitude.

If this resonates please feel free to share – and of course reach out to me. It’s my mission to pass on my knowledge so that you can start living a happy, healthy life for good.

James x

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