Body Building, Muscle Dysmorphia, and Male Bulimia
Large-scale surveys show that male body dissatisfaction has increased dramatically during the last thirty years, from 15% to 43%, which is a rate almost comparable to those found in women. It seems clear that the exceptionally thin beauty standards for women seen in the media, as well as exposure to the lean and muscular male ideal, increases body dissatisfaction in both women and men.
Female body dissatisfaction typically involves feeling too heavy or fat; most young men also seek to be leaner, but larger and more muscular. These expressions of body dissatisfaction are consistent with the current standards of attractiveness for each sex. The high prevalence of body dissatisfaction is a growing concern, given that body image issues are often the driving force behind eating disorders and the use of dangerous anabolic steroids.
In response to the new muscular male ideal, many adolescent and young adult men are engaging in serious weight training or body building. This may have important implications for psychological health, given that these activities are a risk factor for developing disordered eating behaviors.
Male body builders report high rates of body dissatisfaction, undue weight and shape preoccupation, and unhealthy methods of improving their appearance. These methods may include strict dieting, dehydration methods, and use of anabolic steroids.
This area is research is fairly new, so it is not yet known what the exact psychological effects of pursuing the hyper-masculine, muscularized image may be. Nevertheless, there is evidence that competitive and recreational male body builders are like women with eating disorders in many important ways.
One study found that almost 30% of competitive male body builders met criteria for bulimia nervosa at some point in their lifetime, a rate that is much higher than rates reported for men in the general population and even male athletes. This indicates that body dissatisfaction and engaging in unhealthy eating and weight-control practices cannot be attributed solely to competition but also more by personal reasons relating to too much concern about weight and shape.
It is believed that the strict dieting, either by avoiding forbidden foods or by caloric restriction to reduce body fat, would predispose body builders to binge eating. This is because food depravation naturally leads to obsessions about high-calorie foods and also decreases sensitivity to normal internal feelings of hunger and satiation. Both competitive and recreational body builders displayed increased rates of binge eating, but it is thought that this is not due strict dieting alone. Depression and other negative feelings also contribute to binge eating, so if body builders have a negative self-image, this would also contribute to the problem. Studies show that while body builders did not score in the clinical range for depression, they were almost twice as likely to feel depressed after binge eating. Thus it is possible that feeling depressed after binge eating, perhaps owing to a loss of control over eating and/or anticipation of weight gain in fat, predisposed them to even more binges in the future.
Obsessed with the Perfect Body: Bigorexia
Interestingly, both male bulimics and body builders seem to be equally over-concerned with weight and shape. Both feel that body shape is just as important as friends or work. Furthermore, distortions in thinking can be seen by the fact that body builders are just as unhappy with their bodies as non athlete male bulimics, which leads many to anabolic steroid use to get bigger, leaner, and more muscular. These men feel too small and want to increase the size of various upper body parts at any cost.
It is no wonder that some have termed this obsession as "reverse anorexia," "bigorexia," or "muscle dysmorphia." Researchers believe that this is a form of body dysmorphic disorder, a disorder whereby a person feels they are physically flawed despite appearing perfectly normal.
This may also be related to the condtion called obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is on the spectrum that includes bulimia nervosa.
Male bulimics are more likely to purge via laxatives and vomiting, but there appear to be no differences between male bulimics and body builders in the tendency to use vigorous exercise, strict dieting, or diuretics to lose weight or fat. The fact that almost a quarter of recreational body builders used steroids, even though they had no desire to enter competitions, shows that these behaviors are fueled by an obsession about appearance that has little to do with competition. The impetus for these practices is to attain a more attractive body for cosmetic, rather than competitive, purposes.
Although male bulimics are more likely to have more emotional problems that body builders, research has found no differences were found among groups in terms of perfectionism, which was elevated in all groups.
No Sign of Going Away
In summary, more men are experiencing body dissatisfaction in recent years, which has lead many to body building to try to meet society's unrealistic standards. When regular weight training is not enough to reduce weight and shape preoccupation, many resort to strict dieting, steroid use, binge eating, and a bulimia nervosa. More research is needed to determine whether men with a history of bulimia or subclinical features of bulimia disproportionately gravitate toward body building and anabolic steroid use as a vehicle to meet personal or societal standards of attractiveness, or whether the pursuit of the exceptionally lean and muscular ideal fosters bulimic attitudes, eating behaviors, and steroid use. However, it is clear that in our current society, this new problem will only increase with time.
- Body Image, Binge Eating, and Bulimia Nervosa in Male Bodybuilders. Goldfield, Gary S.; Blouin, Arthur G.; Woodside, D Blake; Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Vol 51(3), Mar 2006. pp. 160-168.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Binge eating disorder. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.), 785-7.