When we think of body issues, we often automatically think of women. But in a survey conducted by Mental Health Foundation, one in ten men reported that they’d experienced suicidal thoughts because of their body. Millions more have felt nervous or unsatisfied, too, proving that body image isn’t a female issue at all, but a human one. This includes muscle dysmorphia, which is a debilitating disease that doesn’t discriminate.
What Is Muscle Dysmorphia?
Muscle dysmorphia is a complex body image disorder. In simple terms, it involves an individual believing that they aren’t muscular enough. They see an image in the mirror that’s not a real representation of reality, viewing themselves as skinnier and less defined than they are. Because of this altered view, they’re unhappy with the way they look, and can spend hours every day focusing on becoming more muscular.
In the same way as anorexia and bulimia can be all-consuming, muscle dysmorphia can take over someone’s life. Soon, it feels as though their every waking moment is clouded by thoughts of their body image, and most of their decisions are based on how to become more muscular.
Is Muscle Dysmorphia Only Experienced by Men?
Muscle dysmorphia is a mental illness that affects both men and women. However, it is more common amongst men, with social standards dictating that males should be more muscular than females. That being said, you should never rule out muscle dysmorphia in a woman.
Muscle Dysmorphia Leads to Obsessive Behaviour
A significant characteristic of muscle dysmorphia is obsessive behaviour related to body image. Usually, this starts with increased time at the gym. The individual may even begin skipping other important events, such as school, work, or appointments to make sure they get their gym session in. The length of each gym session can increase, too, taking over other hobbies and interests.
The illness then spreads to life outside of the gym. In particular, individuals suffering from muscle dysmorphia can begin to have an unhealthy relationship with food. Strict calorie counting is frequent, especially when “shredding” – a term used to describe the act of losing weight to increase muscle definition. They may start religiously food prepping, bring their own food with them when eating out, and go on strict diets, such as intermittent fasting. Some people may even avoid kissing due to being concerned about gaining excess calories from saliva.
Those with muscle dysmorphia will obsess over their body image, too. They’re likely to spend a lot of time analysing themselves in the mirror, taking images of their body, and comparing their muscles to others online or in person. This isn’t because they’re vain, but because they’re suffering from severe anxiety that their body isn’t good enough.
Is Muscle Dysmorphia an Eating Disorder?
Muscle dysmorphia isn’t diagnosed as an eating disorder, though many of the symptoms may be similar. Instead, it’s common for eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, to be diagnosed alongside muscle dysmorphia when unhealthy eating habits become severe.
Muscle Dysmorphia and Supplement Abuse
A serious issue that arises alongside muscle dysmorphia is substance or supplement abuse. Taking too many supplements that would usually be healthy can cause medical problems, and supplement use should be monitored carefully. Men with muscle dysmorphia are also more likely to take illegal substances, such as testosterone or anabolic steroids, in an attempt to quickly gain muscle. This is dangerous and an immediate cause for concern.
Signs of Male Muscle Dysmorphia
If you’re worried that a son, a friend, or yourself is suffering from muscle dysmorphia, there are some key signs to look out for. These include:
- An unrealistic idea of their body image (viewing themselves as smaller than they are)
- Low self-esteem
- Excessively talking or thinking about body image
- Unrealistic diet
- Unrealistic exercise regime
- Avoiding situations that show their muscles (e.g. swimming)
You may also notice signs of physical stress on their body from a poor diet and too much exercise, such as thinning hair, brittle nails, and dull skin.
What Causes Muscle Dysmorphia?
As with any body image issue, there isn’t one single cause of muscle dysmorphia. A number of root causes could be behind their distorted view of themselves, including:
- Social pressures (e.g. seeing muscular men constantly complimented on social media)
- Assault or abuse
- Low self-esteem
- Underlying mental illnesses (e.g. depression or PTSD)
The best way to identify the cause of muscle dysmorphia is to speak to a therapist. By identifying what’s making the individual become fixated on their body image, a solution can begin to take shape.
Muscle Dysmorphia Treatment
Muscle dysmorphia can ruin lives if left untreated. Fortunately, though, it doesn’t have to be a looming presence forever. There are plenty of ways you or someone you know can overcome muscle dysmorphia, starting with speaking to a trained therapist.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a very common form of psychotherapy used to treat body image issues. CBT breaks the problem down into smaller issues, looking at how thoughts, feelings, and actions are connected. It deals only with current problems, working solely on breaking negative behaviour patterns and helping the individual to develop working coping mechanisms to treat muscle dysmorphia.
Some people may need concurrent therapy that also delves into their past, resolving trauma from issues such as assault and bullying. Alongside therapy, professionals may prescribe anti-depressants, too, as a short-term solution whilst they deal with the long-term problem.
Muscle dysmorphia is a serious mental health issue and should be treated as such. If you or anyone you know is exhibiting some of the signs we’ve mentioned above, do take it seriously and get in touch with a healthcare professional. You can also learn more about eating disorders and related illnesses on the First Steps ED website, helping everyone struggling to take their first step to recovery.