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When BIG just ain’t cutting it!

By Pedro van Gaalen.

It is a disease of the mind, a delusion held by a growing number of males that they just ain’t big enough. It is known by many names – reverse anorexia nervosa, bigorexia, muscle dysmorphia (MD) or the Adonis complex – which all mean the same thing. It is a form of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) where males exhibit a pathological preoccupation with their muscularity and become obsessed with the idea that they are not muscular enough.

Many experts say that this condition is more widespread than previously thought, as men are unlikely to come forward and discuss their problems openly. According to an article published in the Sunday Times (22 March 2010) a study conducted by the University of Stellenbosch in 2001 found that more than half of a group of amateur bodybuilders in the Western Cape had characteristics of MD.

Anyone who suffers from bigorexia tends to hold delusions that they are “skinny” or “too small” but are generally above average in musculature or, in many cases, have already reached their full natural growth potential. However, bigorexia seems to extend beyond bodybuilding circles and seems to be growing at a rapid rate, especially amongst the youth, due to higher social pressures and shifts in cultural trends and ideals.

Those who are afflicted by this psychological condition exhibit a compulsion to weight train, which for most becomes a complete preoccupation leading to exercise dependency. They will often miss important events like birthdays and meetings, and continue training through pain or injury, even with broken bones. In severe cases it has been reported that guys have lost their jobs as they are deemed as interruptions to their training schedule.

This also extends to ergogenic substance abuse, a fixation with diet and excessive use of supplementation, all aimed at achieving excessive muscle growth. Scientists [Olivardia et al (2000)] have noted that about one third of men who suffer from MD also have an eating disorder, such as binge eating or practice extreme eating patterns, like low-fat, high-protein diets. This is common in bodybuilding circles pre-contest, but MD sufferers tend to follow these diets over a prolonged period of time.

Interestingly though, psychologists who study this condition say that sufferers are not in love with their bodies. It is quite the opposite in fact, as they are unlikely to show off their physique in public, resorting to hiding under long sleeve and baggy clothing, even in summer. They will also tend to shy away from just about any situation that will expose their bodies, as they never feel comfortable or adequate with what they have.

As such, it is incorrect and extremely inaccurate to paint all bodybuilders with the same brush. It is no secret that bodybuilders follow an extreme lifestyle, that ticks many of the boxes psychologists would use to diagnose bigorexia. The difference is that most are in complete control of their actions, and driven by a dedication and commitment to achieve greatness in this very demanding sport, not a compulsive, irrational need to be big.

However, this disease is a debilitating one, which affects all aspects of a sufferers life, from work, to social, as well as personal relationships. So look out for the signs that may indicate that you, or one of your training partners or friends at gym are heading down the destructive path that is bigorexia.

Key signs to look out for include:

  1. Frequently looking at yourself in the mirror (not for posing purposes)
  2. Maintaining a constant strict high-protein, low-fat diet
  3. Wearing baggy clothes to hide the size of your body
  4. Using steroids, other bodybuilding products and excessive food supplements if your not competing
  5. Missing social events, skipping work and ignoring your family in order to train
  6. Avoiding situations like the beach where your body may be exposed
  7. Working out even when injured
  8. Being unable to accept or appreciate positive comments about your physique
  9. Never being satisfied with the muscular mass of your body
  10. Maintaining extreme workout methods

For anyone already suffering from this condition, you can take heart as there is a route back to normality. While many people with MD resist getting treatment, as they either say they don’t have a problem, are content with the way they are or believe that if they give up the drugs and exercise they will wither away into nothing, those who use some form of therapy combined with medication have been able to defeat bigorexia. So if you suspect that you or someone you know is suffering from bigorexia contact a doctor or psychologist to find out how you can help them out.


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