Although commonly stated and recognised as a ‘Male’ Psychological body disorder, Muscle dysmorphia has shown to mostly impact 1 in 10 gym goers, including females and has been long overlooked by society and the media for a vast amount of time.
Despite many individuals idealising fitness models physiques, people who perceive to have reached the 'body standard', gym goers as 'Individuals who have their lives together' and seen as the most healthiest of people; as a person who has subtly been and has friends on both sides, if your mindset and perception to becoming healthier and looking better is not healthy, the grass is not greener on the other side.
What is muscle dysmorphia?
Muscle dysmorphia ( MD ) is a type of body dysmorphic disorder ( BDD ) and a mental health condition where individuals perceive their bodies to be muscle deficient, resulting in eating disorders. Many Individuals with MD have a distorted belief they lack body definition/muscle and develop an unhealthy mindset of constantly and solely engaging in activities where their routine, diet and body image are always in consideration. Over time this has shown this affects their relationships and professional obligations as sufferers tend to skip and reschedule activities to spend time strength training and sticking to their fitness regime.
According to Sasha Paul, Lead Clinician for eating disorders, the symptoms of muscle dysmorphia include:
- Feeling unable to miss a workout
- Working out / Feeling depressed for not working out despite being injured
- Checking your physique regularly
- Spending multiple hours in the gym daily
- Repeatedly thinking about how muscular or lean you are
- Neglecting work and social commitments to workout / stick to their diet
- Taking steroids or multiple supplements
- Building your life around your workouts and food
While this is generally known to affect bodybuilders and men, it also affects women as society has popularised female strength training.
The fitness industry
Upon entering and within the first few months of joining the fitness industry, I started the gym with a healthy relationship with food, whereby I ate what I wanted. However, like many others, I had self-confidence issues because of my weak / "Skinny Fat" physique, even though many perceived me as having an 'good' body shape and healthy.
I had always known that when most people imagine eating disorders, they associate this with anorexia nervosa, which correlates to when people restrict their diet to having a thinner physique. However, upon first starting, I learned the best way forward for me was strength training which I still do today. Months went by, and with my body becoming more defined through dieting and exercise, many around me started to treat me better because I valued myself more. I also imagined this newfound 'self-worth' increased through my physical appearance; this automatically created an association that the more I train, the better I look and feel, and the people around me will value me too.
Now to maintain this and feel a sense of contentment, I increased my number of training days to the point where I started feeling strange for missing a day of working out. I also ate alone on most days and passed on going out with my friends / social and family events because I prepped my food and was on a 'diet' to maintain the muscle/definition I had put on. Throughout the day, my body captivated most of my thoughts, and even when I was exhausted from working, I forced myself to go. Skipping out on training made me feel incompetent and weak, and taking a 'cheat day', which is perfectly healthy, to eat anything I wanted, made me feel sick and guilty.
After 8-9 months, I realised that I wasn't enjoying my workouts as much as I used to and had turned every day into a punishing eating and exercising routine, which left me isolated and with little to no energy for anything else.
Yes, I have not experienced muscle dysmorphia to its full extent, but realising the start of the cycle and having others notice this in me, alarmed me enough to learn to work on my mental health. Overall, I realised that I occasionally struggle with going too far in the direction of what makes me feel the best. However, finding a balance and recognising the importance of my connection with myself helped me find my way back to doing other things again.
If you believe you may know someone or struggle with this too, no matter the gender, there are many articles online with more information to guide you in the right direction and where to seek treatment including :
To seek help for BDD in general, please visit: https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/body-dysmorphia/