Eating Disorders: Muscle Dysmorphia

The body image distortion of men with "muscle dysmorphia" is strikingly analogous to those of women and men with anorexia nervosa. Some people colloquially refer to muscle dysmorphia as "bigorexia nervosa" or "reverse anorexia." People with anorexia nervosa see themselves as fat when they're actually too thin or emaciated; people with muscle dysmorphia feel ashamed of looking too small when they're actually big. Men who experience these distortions describe them as extremely painful resulting in a need to exercise every day, feelings of acute shame about their body image, and lifetime histories of anxiety and depression.

Men with muscle dysmorphia often risk physical self-destruction by persisting in compulsive exercising despite pain and injuries, or continue on ultra low-fat high-protein diets even when they are desperately hungry. Many take dangerous anabolic steroids and other drugs to bulk up, all because they think they don't look good enough.

These men's nagging or tormenting worries are rarely relieved by increasing their bodybuilding. Persistent worrying may be termed psychologically as obsessions or obsessional thinking. People are driven to repetitive behaviors (compulsions) in response to these obsessions. According to Pope, Phillips & Olivardia (2000) some men may be aware that their obsessional beliefs are irrational and that their compulsive behaviors are futile. Even with this knowledge they are unable to stop their driven and often self-destructive behaviors. The feelings of shame and endless self-criticism appear to take over any rational thoughts often forcing men to chose catering to muscle obsessions rather than allowing them to lead more fulfilled lives.

The body image distortion of men with 'muscle dysmorphia', also referred to as bigorexia nervosa or reverse anorexia, are strikingly analogous to those of women and men with anorexia nervosa.Dysmorphia is an obsessive-compulsive disorder that affects a person's perception of their body image. Most men who have this psychological illness are rather muscular when compared to the rest of the population, but they none-the-less wear baggy clothes and refuse to take their shirts off in public out of fear of being ridiculed because of their (anticipated) small size. It can be quite serious and needs to be treated. Dysmorphia might not have as direct an impact on a man's health as anorexia complications, but its repercussions can still have grave effects on a person's life. Some of the symptoms can cause irreparable damage to the body and the negative impact it can have on one's social life can take years to fix.

Men who have this illness will spend countless hours at the gym every day lifting weights obsessively. They will always check to see if they gained mass and constantly complain that they are too thin or too small and need to bulk up.

They will be fixated on eating the right things and adjust their entire life around gaining mass. It might sound like virtually every guy at the gym, but dysmorphia is an extreme case of bodybuilding on the brain.

Men with this condition exaggerate every aspect of bodybuilding to the point of delusion. Eating the right food will not simply be a conviction; it's going to be a phobia. Time spent away from the gym will cause anxiety and stress, and life outside the gym will suffer.

Social life, job opportunities, work, dates, and anything else that can interfere with time spent at the gym will take a backseat. In extreme cases of dysmorphia, men will over-workout until they damage their muscles, sometimes permanently.

Although the sources of muscle obsessions and weight-lifting compulsions are not known with any certainty three arenas are suspected. First there almost certainly is a genetic, biologically based component. In other words people may inherit a predisposition to developing obsessive-compulsive symptoms. The second component is psychological suggesting that obsessive and compulsive behavior may result in part from one's experiences growing up, such as being teased. The final and quite possibly the most powerful source may be the idea that society plays a powerful and increasing role, by constantly broadcasting messages that "real men" have big muscles. These factors lay the groundwork for muscle dysmorphia and other forms of the Adonis Complex in adulthood.

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APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2008, December 5). Eating Disorders: Muscle Dysmorphia, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 19 from

Last Updated: January 14, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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