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When you look at the burly physiques of bodybuilders, it's hard to imagine that such huge manifestations of muscularity can possibly suffer from anorexia or, more commonly, a new variant of the disorder termed "reverse anorexia." Two well known psychiatrists recently speculated,
however, that based on the known characteristics of anorexia, it may be common among bodybuilders. They further hypothesized that this may account for the proclivity among some bodybuilders to resort to anabolic steroids and other pharmacologleal methods to gain muscle
Anorexia nervosa is a set of physical symptoms brought on by a serious mental distortion of body image. Estimates indicate that as many as 1 percent of young American women suffer from this disorder, a main symptom of which is self-starvation, It can, however, also occur in older women and, to a far less extent, in men. The disease often appears when young women first leave home. Other times it develops after the victim has experienced depression, been under pressure to lose weight, used certain drugs or gotten off birth control pills. When such women look at themselves in the mirror, they always find excessive fat on their bodies. In reality, many of them are nothing but skin and bones. If the anorexia progresses past a certain point of no return, they begin to digest their own internal organs, including the heart.
According to psychiatrists Harrison Pope Jr., David Katz and lames Hudson, a study of 108 male bodybuilders turned up similar body image distortions. Pope and Katz first investigated the mental effects of anabolic steroids on bodybuilders' behavior a few years ago, and this study is an extension of their older research. After interviewing the athletes, Pope, Katz and Hudson noticed that many of the men perceived themselves as small and weak despite the fact that they were enormous. Many wore heavy clothes to make themselves appear bigger even in mild weather, thus drawing attention to themselves, Of the 108 subjects in the study 51 percent reported using steroids, while 49 percent abstained.
Only three of the men indicated a past history of anorexia nervosa, but the researchers considered this significant. The three men in the study represented 2.8 percent of the total, a finding that was highly unusual, since the average incidence of anorexia among American men is .02 percent. One case described in the study involved a 25-year- old bodybuilder who'd first exhibited anorexia at 15, when he dieted down to 114 pounds. As he was taller than 6 he was extremely thin, but he felt he was still too fat. After a few years of active bodybuilding he gained 130 pounds, and at the time of the study he weighed 243 and had a bodyfat level of 12.6 percent, 2.4 percent lower than the average for a man. Even so, this man still felt fat.
Another lifter in the study had started out with anorexia nervosa, then developed reverse anorexia after using a few steroid cycles. He gained more than 100 pounds over two years, and his fat level was only 7.3 percent at 189 pounds, but he felt so small that he refused to leave his house for several weeks. A third bodybuilder had decided at 15 that he looked too fat, and he promptly stopped eating. His weight decreased to 115 pounds at about 510", and he maintained this "defined" appearance for a year. At 18 he began using steroids, eventually doing nine cycles of the drugs during a total of 78 weeks over a three-year period. He reported being constantly hot tempered and slept only four hours a night. Because he felt small-it was reverse anorexia-he wore heavy clothes even in the summer heat. By21 he was off steroids, and his reverse anorexia disappeared.
The point here is that it's possible to develop a distorted body image of yourself that's similar to the anorexia nervosa seen in women, and it can happen even if you're actually huge. You let your mind play tricks on you, and you convince yourself that you're "small." According to Pope, Katz and Hudson, many bodybuilders feel compelled to resort to anabolic steroids because of self- induced pressure to look as hig as the bodybuilders they see in magazines like this one.
Although it was not discussed in the study cited here, a dangerous outcome can occur if bodybuilders continue to have distorted self-images and rely on increasing doses of drugs to achieve the size goals they set for themselves. As with any drug, the more you use and the longer you use it, the greater the risk of side effects. While female bodybuilding anorexics weren't discussed in the study, I've seen and heard about a few of them, One well-known woman star's facored weight-loss technique involved self-inflicted vomiting, also known as the binge and purge cycle, or bulimia. Another woman arrived in town a few years ago looking cadaverous from a 300-calorie-a-day diet, and some bodybuilders from Gold's Gym were so alarmed by her appearance that they gently force-fed her milkshakes. I saw her again a few years later. She was fat and pregnant-but noticeably happier.