Bigorexia – 13 symptoms you shouldn’t ignore

Bigorexia is quite a frequent disorder among gym-goers, particularly men. People with bigorexia spend a lot of time at the gym; they compare their appearance to that of other people; they often follow a restrictive diet and, despite visible results, they are never really satisfied with their muscularity and their appearance. With a deepening lack of self-acceptance, bigorexia results in anabolic steroids misuse, and in extreme cases, it may even lead to muscle implant operations.

Anna Urbańska

What is bigorexia?

Bigorexia, also known as muscle dysmorphia, is a mental disorder where the person who suffers from it believes (subjectively) that their body does not meet the aesthetic criteria: it is too wispy, not muscular or toned enough, even though to the outside their body seems muscly. People struggling with bigorexia aim to achieve the perfect body (which does not exist). That pathological preoccupation with one’s physique is sometimes called reverse anorexia. However, unlike anorexia, it mainly afflicts men. It is estimated that around 10% of males who go to the gym regularly and as many as approx. 5% of young women suffer from bigorexia. Women struggling with bigorexia are typically women who do strength training; they are frequently professional body builders or bikini fitness competitors. Unfortunately, the disorder is on the rise among young adults.

Causes of bigorexia

A deep lack of self-acceptance is the core cause of bigorexia. This disorder often occurs during late adolescence. It frequently afflicts people of frail stature, who have difficulties in making friends with their peers and believe these difficulties are caused by their appearance, specifically by the fact that they are not muscular enough. An adolescent boy’s or a man’s belief that his body is weak is often fed by their peers who may tease or bully them.

In a typical scenario, an adolescent boy starts to work out in the gym to change his body and, by extension, “fix all of his problems”. Restrictive workouts are to influence and strengthen his body image, but also (or, primarily) they are to improve his self-esteem. If, despite the first physical effects (greater body weight and muscle mass), his mental condition does not improve, the workouts and bodybuilding become a compulsion. The first symptoms of bigorexia may appear fast or after a longer time from the beginning of bodybuilding.

However, bigorexia afflicts men of all ages, and the second major milestone (after adolescence) in which it may appear is at around 40. At that time, there is a marked decline in testosterone (which is an anabolic hormone that stimulates the muscle tissue growth) and andropause. It is also coupled with a greater cumulation of body fat. Men start noticing the first changes in their bodies, and wanting to keep the appearance that (in their opinion) is young and attractive, they embark on the never-ending struggle to be muscular.

Why do men suffering from bigorexia keep taking efforts to increase their muscle mass? The most frequent reasons for the non-acceptance of their body image and the resulting bigorexia are as follows:

  • The need for self-acceptance and body image acceptance as well as the need for improving their own self-esteem.
  • An attempt to be like some well-known people who are very muscular and to get recognition in that way.
  • The desire to stop the passing of time and to keep the young appearance despite aging and the natural changes in the body.
  • The need to be respected because of one’s appearance.

It is impossible to pinpoint one cause of bigorexia. The factors that may increase its odds include:

  • negative experience during childhood, such as being bullied or teased about their appearance (frequently about slim physique),
  • other mental disorders and illnesses (such as depression),
  • perfectionism,
  • difficulties in relations with loved ones,
  • the presence of other body-related dysmorphia disorders in the family.