28 Mar More Muscles, More “Likes”: The Rise of Bigorexia and How Social Media is Fueling Unhealthy Body Image Among Young Men
Bodybuilding has long captivated audiences. Once upon a time, star ironmen like Arnold Schwartzenegger were admired, but not often imitated. One would have to visit a Gold’s Gym or similar spot to find individuals pursuing similar lifestyles. It wasn’t often that one would be inundated with images of muscles and lean body mass, which is completely contrary to the experience of many youth who use social media apps today.
Fast-forward to 2022, with the proliferation of social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, amateur bodybuilders are more popular than ever. Glorifying high protein diets and #gains, this new breed of influencers is perpetuating a whole new standard of male aesthetic. While nutrition plans and workout habits are often associated with healthy lifestyles, the line between a healthy habit and toxic regimen can be paper thin. When does an interest in healthy habits veer into dangerous territory?
This blog seeks to explore the rising rates of muscle dysmorphia, disordered eating, and bigorexia among America’s youth, and correlates possible drivers in social media and popular culture. Ultimately, in line with the National Eating Disorder Association’s annual theme, we seek to “See the Change, Be the Change,” and raise awareness about the condition to help improve prevention, diagnosis, and support for those struggling.
What is Bigorexia and Muscle Dysmorphia?
Scientifically, muscle dysmorphia is defined as a “pathologic preoccupation with muscularity and leanness.” Unique within body dysmorphic disorders, muscle dysmorphia features a specific dissatisfaction with one’s level of muscularity.
“Bigorexia” is an informal term coined by psychiatrists for a form of muscle dysmorphia primarily experienced by men that is characterized by extreme amounts of weight lifting, a fixation on the feeling that one is not muscular enough, and rigid eating and exercise protocols designed to lessen weight and build muscle. Many times, when an individual with bigorexia looks in the mirror, he feels discouraged and may not be able to accurately register the level of muscle mass he has attained.
Identifying bigorexia is difficult – partly due to low levels of awareness among both physicians and the general public – and partly due to the outwardly healthy appearance of most individuals experiencing the condition. While data on the number of individuals with bigorexia is largely unknown, one study estimates as many as one in 10 bodybuilders are affected.
The connection between athletics, working out, and disordered eating is well documented. In 2019, a study followed the behaviors, habits, and feelings of 14,000 young people and directly correlated disordered eating patterns among 22% of males and 5% of females with the experience of working out and gaining muscle mass.
A Supersized Pop Culture
Studies indicate that standards of beauty are overwhelmingly ingested from popular culture. And today’s popular culture has been supersized. Today, paragons of male strength are more massive than they have ever been before. Daniel Craig’s James Bond is noticeably more muscular than Sean Connery’s. In the movie, Free Guy, Ryan Reynolds’ jacked alter-ego, Dude, is a playful jab at other Hollywood leading men, like Chris Hemsworth as Thor or Channing Tatum as Magic Mike (who, coincidentally, recently spoke out against the normalization of mass muscle in popular culture).
This shift is not only qualitative – data exists to highlight this shift. In 2006, sports scientists published a study comparing changes in size of superhero figurines over the years. The result? Superman, The Incredible Hulk, and Batman toys all increased in muscular circumference over the last 25 years. The scientists wrote that “this occurrence may particularly influence the perceptions of preadolescent males.”
Big, Bigger, Biggest: Bodybuilding Over the Years
Interestingly, bodybuilding ideals have followed a similar trajectory. Musclemen of years past look positively tiny compared with the Mr. Olympias of today. Professionals hypothesize various reasons for this, but overwhelmingly attribute greater gains to a set of characteristics, tools, and scientific advances. Primarily, they note that today, the sport of bodybuilding attracts a whole different group of individuals – those who are more likely to be genetically capable of growing larger. Advances in the efficacy of various types of anabolic substances also helped spur size, along with a general evolution of the method.
Whereas bodybuilders of the past used to constantly workout and fatigue muscles, today’s practitioners follow strict regiments that, counterintuitively, encourage less time in the gym. Fewer, yet more efficient sessions with intensive reps, coupled with greater periods of rest, allow much larger muscle growth. The result: the image of a “strong” male figure is bigger and buffer than ever before.
Shaping Perception: Social Media and Size
And, as it turns out, when it comes to body type, size matters. At least, for social media, that is. To help determine whether certain aesthetics are glorified, researchers in the Netherlands analyzed 1,000 Instagram posts featuring male bodies. Those that showed “highly muscular, lean men,” received a notably higher volume of likes and shares than posts featuring less muscular men, or those who have higher levels of body fat.
Too often, the most popular accounts on TikTok or Instagram display idealized images featuring large muscles and shirtless physiques. These trending accounts perpetuate new standards of the male aesthetic that trickle down to pre-teens, influencing their behaviors. A 13-year-old profiled in a recent Guardian piece created a daily routine in which he “works [out] until his muscles can’t take any more.”
Repeatedly seeing images of musclemen is powerful for youth. Another researcher collecting data on the social-media habits of undergraduate men and high school boys in Australia correlated repeated encounters with images of muscled, masculine physiques with low body esteem and development of a desire to become more muscular. And that feeling is pervasive. A 2018 study of a large cohort of teenaged boys reported that nearly one-third of those between the ages of 13 and 18 reported that they actively focus on gaining weight or bulking up.
The Outsized Impact of Bigorexia
As noted earlier, bigorexia and muscle dysmorphia are difficult to recognize. Symptoms may include compulsively working out, excessively lifting weights, choosing to prioritize workouts over spending time with family and friends, and inappropriate use of anabolic steroids, supplements, and protein shakes.
Since 2013, the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation has been helping to raise awareness and share helpful education information, screeners, support information, and tips. Beyond compulsive exercise and nutrition habits, the foundation notes that: “BDD can cause extreme emotional distress, including feelings of anxiety, shame, depression, and disgust. Even if sufferers’ concerns about their appearance aren’t noticeable to others, their distress is very real.” Notably, just as anorexia, bulimia, and any eating disorder may impact an individual of any gender, bigorexia and muscle dysmorphia can affect women as well as men.
Body dysmorphic disorders, including bigorexia, can create negative emotions that may overlap with other mental health disorders, including: anxiety, sadness, low mood, poor self-esteem, low energy, feeling disgust in oneself, difficulty concentrating, or difficulty eating or sleeping.
Individuals with bigorexia may struggle to maintain a meaningful social life. When not passing on social opportunities to prioritize a workout, low levels of self-esteem may make it difficult for people to interact with others and maintain eye contact during conversation. One may be preoccupied with overwhelming or obsessive thoughts about his appearance, limiting his ability to enjoy time spent with others.
In certain cases, body dysmorphic disorder and bigorexia can lead to self-harm, including severely restricted eating, overexertion that endangers heart or orthopedic health, or anti-social tendencies that further lower self-esteem. Those with full time jobs, family lives, or who are pursuing educational degrees may find it difficult to maintain these responsibilities when otherwise preoccupied with appearance, eating enough of the right foods, and building muscular strength.
To help empower those seeking to learn more, the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation developed a personal screener that individuals can take at home to determine whether they might have body dysmorphic disorder.
Treatment + Ongoing Awareness
Experts note that bigorexia may be chronically undiagnosed and that early awareness is paramount. Researchers note that many current interventions for disordered body images have been designed specifically for female populations, and that a helpful first step is to educate middle and high school teachers on early indicators, symptoms, and being more gender inclusive.
For those aware of their condition, seeking ways to moderate symptoms is often a helpful first step. Small changes can make a big difference, such as:
- Timeboxing one’s daily weightlifting and exercise activities to fit within one hour per day
- Eliminating the use of steroids, protein shakes, and other fitness supplements that have not been recommended by a personal physician
- Deleting calorie trackers, fitness apps, and other tools that encourage close monitoring of food and exercise routines
- Taking part in a social media detox – or, unfollowing most high profile body builders and musclemen to reduce exposure to triggering content
The National Eating Disorder Helpline is always available for those who want to learn more and kickstart a treatment plan. Professional mental health providers can help in other ways. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective in developing new patterns of thinking and reducing negative thought cycles. Perceptual retraining can help reshape the way one views oneself.
Beyond direct habit changes, building healthy habits will help with long-term well-being. Meditation, time spent outdoors, thought and gratitude journals, and jotting down noted triggers can all be healthy ways to help channel energy and provide a healthy sense of control.
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