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Call it what you want, but most bodybuilders suffer from some form of body-distortion disorder, where they see themselves differently than anyone else on the outside does. The most common example of body dysmorphia is,
of course, anorexia nervosa. Many women - and a few men - suffer from the tragic, debilitating and often life-threatening disease, but many more suffer from image disorders that are less deadly but no less destructive.
When we see a healthy, muscular specimen walking down the street or training alongside us in the gym, it's easy to think, 'This guy (or girl) has it made! Good body, perfect condition ... what's not to like?' But the truth is, many of today's physique stars and aspiring body gods suffer from muscle dysmorphia, an inability to keep a realistic perspective of size and dimension. Yes, there's actually an official term for what all of us have known exists for decades.
Engaging oneself in an industry that is based solely on physical merits always leaves the door open to psychological, physical and emotional disorders. If anyone out there thinks he or she can argue against that concept, let me know. I work in Gold's Gym in Venice and I'd be happy to debate it. When you base most of your existence on your physical self, you're almost certain to experience some kind of backlash.
I deal with a great many women. The problems they have with their bodies are pretty well chronicled in psychology books, women's magazines and in social circles. I mean, what guy hasn't heard his girl gripe about the size of her hips, butt or stomach? If other women are present, it's almost an unavoidable topic of conversation. Men suffer from this sort of distorted self-image too - bodybuilders especially, but men in general. The fact that a guy doesn't normally gripe about his body makes the problem all the more noticeable when it occurs. Bodybuilders don't generally down themselves for the shape of their hips or thighs. They often just have a false sense of self. I've heard the condition called "bigorexia" and "Napoleon's syndrome," but regardless of the name, it can be both annoying and troubling for the subject himself and the people around him. Muscle dysmorphia can cause many repercussions if left to grow unchecked in the mind of the bodybuilder. So what constitutes muscle dysmorphia? It's an overall feeling that no matter how big that individual is in a muscular sense, he is not yet quite big enough, and therefore, must work harder to measure up. The problem arises when "work harder" means taking higher doses of drugs, despite the side effects, cost or inherent health risks.
I once knew a pro bodybuilder who, though he doesn't compete any more, used to drive himself (and others) absolutely insane by obsessing aloud constantly during every conversation in the gym. Forget exposing this guy to a mirror! If he caught sight of himself, he'd start bellyaching about his size, and how small he thought he'd gotten since his last look at himself (sometimes just minutes earlier). He was the absolute worst I've ever seen. But trust me, there are plenty more who incessantly question those around them, querying them over and over again to make sure they're getting a straight scoop on their appearance.
Women bodybuilders suffer from it too, but in a way that's somewhat different from men. Men see themselves as being too small to hang at the top of the heap - often even when they are as big as houses and look their best ever. Women suffer from muscle dysmorphia in much scarier ways. They see themselves as still looking feminine and womanly despite getting hideously large and distolling their facial features and bone and cartilage structure with massive quantities of androgens.
Look, I hate to make this next observation, because it may sound as though I'm downing female bodybuilders when truly I'm not. But many of the women in the sport today don't even look like females any more. In some odd way I think they, too, see themselves as puny and unworthy. While I'm totally committed to building muscle and believe both men and women should sport muscular physiques, the real objective is to develop the whole package, not just to see who can become the biggest. Even the men, to whom muscle is completely acceptable, have to present a total package to win. Why shouldn't the women consider this angle? That's not sexism - it's just reality. Unfortunately women don't consider the total package when they're on the fast track to success. And believe me, it's no longer just the bodybuilders who suffer from this delusion. Fitness competitors are beginning to fall prey to the same kind of disorder. Look how muscular fitness women have become over the last few years. Muscle creeps up on people, and they gradually take on a shape they might not recognize if they were to compare their before and current self.
I first read about this condition online. I found out from the Internet that the name for the disorder I'd always known existed is muscle dysmorphia. In the process of researching this topic, I read a lot of studies done by universities, hospitals and nonprofit councils on drug abuse in sports. One of the studies I found particularly interesting was conducted on both male and female bodybuilders at McLean Hospital (the Harvard Medical School affiliate). It stated that... "65 out of the 75 bodybuilding study subjects reported extreme dissatisfaction with their bodies in a newly described syndrome called muscle dysmorphia in which bodybuilders in top physical condition feel small and weak." The study went on to state that "bodybuilding can be a dangerous activity for women who have - or are at risk of developing - eating or body-image disorders because the bodybuilding community accepts as normal the compulsive dieting, self-preoccupation and concomitant sub-stance abuse that are associated with these disorders."
Many bodybuilders, both men and women, who suffer from this ailment had productive, professional lives before getting bitten by the muscle bug. I know many men and women who compete at high levels after having left good careers to pursue a goal of packing on the pounds. This study also found that many female bodybuilders had been professionals with promising careers which they left for an "all-consuming bodybuilding lifestyle." I've known a few of these people. I know a woman who was a top-level executive at a major company, and a man who had a successful medical practice - both of whom abandoned their careers to pursue bodybuilding full time.
I got to wondering about why this situation occurs after hearing a guy drone on and on one night about how small he thought he was. Hearing him pick himself apart over a supposed flaw that wasn't even real was more than I could take. His self-criticism was actually painful to listen to.
The obvious answer seems lame, but I really believe it is applicable. Apparently, when researchers for the International Journal of Eating Disorders did a comparative study on action figures of yesteryear and the ones on the market today, they made an interesting discovery. They measured the G.I. Joe doll from 20 years ago and then the one currently manufactured, and found his measurements had expanded in all the right places! A lot of other action figures have grown too. Even the original Hans Solo of Star Wars fame has expanded. Says one researcher, "Not only have the figures grown more muscular, but they have also developed increasingly sharp muscular definition through the years."
If you work out in a gym, you definitely know at least one person who suffers from muscle dysmorphia. Believe it or not, it is acknowledged as a legitimate disorder within mental-health circles. People with muscle dysmorphia believe there's something wrong with them at their core and that they have an actual defect in their body. In truth, there really never is a problem.
By bodybuilding standards the sufferer may not have the potential to become Mr. Olympia, but not many people do. So what? Yet the muscle dysmorphic believes himself or herself to have puny muscles. Remember that first study I told you about? Well, guess what? It found that 10 percent of male bodybuilders, 84 percent of female body-builders, and 50 percent of all fitness athletes have symptoms of this disorder. To be considered muscle dysmorphic, one must believe one has small muscles, despite visual evidence to the contrary, and must be so engrossed in this distortion of body image that both social and career opportunities are passed over in favor of working out, dieting, and doing aerobic exercise. What can you do if someone you know suffers from this psychologically debilitating distortion of perception? Urge him/her to seek counseling or some form of help for his/her lack of perceptive abilities concerning self. The condition can only progress and get worse, like any other disease of distortion and denial. A person could die in short order from anorexia or bulimia, but the death from this kind of distortion is much more gradual and painful. At a certain point the muscle dysmorphic could be too far gone to receive help.
Muscle dysmorphia robs a person of friendships and romantic relationships, as well as ability to enjoy life and be spontaneous. Since the sufferer is exceedingly self-conscious at all times, she/he cannot relax but worries constantly about how others see - and condemn - the perceived meagerness. The risks include job loss, relationship failure, lack of joy, and potentially, loss of health or life through substance abuse. Although sufferers from muscle dysmorphia often need more help than we are able to provide individually, understanding encouragement and a strong support mechanism from friends and family will go far to relieve their damaging self-doubt.