Bigorexia: A Modern Problem

Bigorexia is a phenomenon of the modern age. Also known as "Megarexia" or "reverse anorexia", people with bigorexia are obsessed not with being thin, but with bulking up. Bigorexia has also been tagged as the “Adonis Complex,” after the mythological Greek figure who epitomized masculine strength and beauty. Approximately 90 percent of people with the disorder are men. Most develop the disorder in their late teens.

Bigorexia and anorexia are both types of body dysmorphic disorders and the two have much in common. For example, men with bigorexia view themselves as weak and skinny, no matter how “buff” and muscular they become, while girls who struggle with anorexia see a fat girl in the mirror, no matter how thin they actually are or how much weight they have lost. Both constantly “body check,” or compare themselves with others.

Although experts aren’t sure why men develop the disorder, those who were underweight or overweight as a child, or those who were bullied or picked on tend to be at higher risk. The problem is associated with society’s preoccupation with what is perceived as the perfect masculine body. However, culture’s ideal body of masculinity is distorted, much like the ideal woman with a slender waist, round bottom and large breasts.

If you are concerned that you or someone you care about may have this form of body dysmorphic disorder, there are several symptoms to watch for. People diagnosed with bigorexia often:

  • Engage in rigorous exercise or training regimes, becoming depressed or angry if a workout is missed.
  • Are fearful of skipping a day of exercise, even when they are in pain or don’t feel well, for fear of losing muscle or getting skinny.
  • May hide the body under loose clothing, or may tan obsessively to look more attractive.
  • Tend to eat high-protein diets, even at the expense of balanced nutrition. Many men with the disorder are obsessed with buying and preparing the perfect high-protein drink.
  • Lose touch with old friends, preferring to spend time alone or with like-minded individuals.
  • Obsessively scan their reflection in mirrors or windows.
  • May use anabolic steroids to bulk up and increase muscle mass.

Men with bigorexia tend to avoid treatment, often because they see the disorder not as a problem but as a healthy lifestyle defined by discipline, rigorous exercise, controlled diet and virtually no use of tobacco or alcohol. They may belong to a “gym rat” subculture with people of similar mindsets who also don’t view themselves as having a problem.

However, even healthy lifestyles are no longer healthy when they become obsessive. Bigorexia and other body dysmorphic disorders often lead to muscle, tendon and joint damage caused by excessive or aggressive exercise. Those with the disorder also tend to have financial problems caused by gym fees and expensive dietary supplements; as well as problems at work or school, severe anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Men who use anabolic steroids to bulk up are at increased risk of baldness, shrunken testicles, severe acne, enlarged forehead, reduced sperm count, infertility, and development of breasts. Steroids are no safer for women and may caused growth of facial and body hair, shrinking of breasts, deepened voice, hair loss and cessation of menstrual cycles. Continued use of steroids places users at risk of blood clots, high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, abnormal liver function and increased cholesterol. Drug addiction treatment or rehab may be needed to deal with addiction to steroids.

Treating Body Dysmorphic Disorders

Treatment for bigorexia and other body dysmorphic disorders often involves therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), in which a trained clinician guides clients through the process of examining and challenging assumptions and negative thoughts about appearance and body image so that thinking patterns can be restructured into more positive, realistic thoughts. Treatment also addresses underlying issues such as trauma from bullying, low self-esteem, family dysfunction, influence of media and the internet, depression, anxiety, and other co-occurring disorders. Clients are often relieved to go back “to a normal life” and not spend their precious lifetime in gyms and on the racetracks.

Structured and empathic counseling helps people to learn to view their bodies in an accepting, appreciative, nonjudgmental way and gain control over constant body checking. Many benefit from practicing relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation and many other complementary approaches.

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