If you’re reading this, you’ve probably done a muscle-building position in the mirror and pondered if your muscles are big enough and defined enough.
It’s normal for gym-goers who want to bulk up to keep track of their progress, both physically and aesthetically, in terms of how our clothing fit and how much our traps pop in the photos we don’t snap. However, there is a narrow line between appreciating and necessitating alterations to our bodies, which is known as muscular dysmorphia.
What Is Muscle Dysmorphia?
Dysmorphia is defined as the inability to see one’s own body shape in the mirror correctly. According to the Physique Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, muscle dysmorphia (MD) is characterized by an extreme fixation with appearing “too puny” or “not muscular enough,” which may be accompanied by compulsive monitoring of one’s own body and/or constantly comparing one’s muscles to those of others.
Overtraining, especially when injured or fatigued, chemical use, such as excessive supplementation or steroid misuse, and disordered nutrition can all be signs of muscle dysmorphia.
The DSM-5 And Muscle Dysmorphia
The DSM-5 classifies muscle dysmorphia as an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it is characterized by the following symptoms:
“A fixation on one or more perceived flaws or deficiencies in one’s physical appearance that are not obvious to others or look minor to them.”
At some point over the disorder’s course, the individual has participated in repetitive acts (e.g., mirror checking, excessive grooming, skin picking, reassurance seeking) or mental activities (e.g., comparing his or her appearance to that of others) in response to the appearance concerns.
Anxiety causes clinically significant pain or impairment in social, vocational, or other aspects of functioning. Concerns about body fat or weight do not account for the appearance of preoccupation in a person whose symptoms match the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder.
Muscle dysmorphia is characterized by the individual’s concern with the idea that his or her body build is too small or not muscular enough. This specifier is used even if the person is concerned about other parts of the body, which is common.”
The guideline then suggests that clinicians assess patients’ self-awareness of their muscle dysmorphia, stating that doctors should:
“Indicate your level of comprehension of body dysmorphic disorder perspectives (for example, “I look ugly” or “I seem malformed”).
- With good or fair insight, the individual recognizes that the body dysmorphic disorder beliefs are either absolutely or probably false, or they may or may not be true.
- Individuals with less understanding believe that their body dysmorphic beliefs are most likely true.
- Individuals who lack insight/have erroneous views are certain that their body dysmorphic thoughts are correct.”
All of this means that serious lifters are typically concerned with our muscle size and appearance: yet, there is a fine line where our generally healthy lifting may feed a potentially dangerous and urge to improve our bodies, even in risky ways.
What Do Experts Say?
According to Lachlan Mitchell, main author of a 2017 study on muscle dysmorphia among bodybuilders published in the journal Sports Medicine, bodybuilding can be a blessing, a curse, or both for people who are prone to muscular dysmorphia. His 2017 study showed a relationship between muscle dysmorphia and depression, anxiety, neuroticism, and perfectionism in bodybuilders.
Of course, not all depressed bodybuilders have muscle dysphoria, but Mitchell claims that “under the right circumstances, meaning a competitive environment, training, a focus on nutrition, and body composition, these individuals who demonstrate other psychological factors (depression, anxiety, and self-esteem) may manifest muscle dysmorphia characteristics.”
Experts, on the other hand, are keen to point out that bodybuilding is not intrinsically unhealthy. Claudio Longobardi, the author of another muscle dysmorphia study published in the journal Psychiatry Research in 2017, reminds us that,
“We do not feel that bodybuilding is harmful to people’s psychological health.”
However, he observes that in current American culture, bodybuilding and the pursuit of increased muscularity are strongly connected with masculinity. As a result of this, he claims,
“Bodybuilding may be a path that some people take to try to compensate for some psychological demands, such as rejection anxiety or a sense of insecurity/danger.”
Because of the link between toxic masculinity and muscle dysmorphia, both researchers believe that the interplay between dysmorphia and bodybuilding is understudied in women. Nonbinary and trans people are understudied in this area as well, although it’s worth mentioning that transmasculine people seeing themselves as “not muscular enough” is a major way that gender dysphoria and muscle dysmorphia can intersect.
How Can You Tell If You’re Just a Serious Bodybuilder Or If Something Dangerous Is Going On?
According to Mitchell, muscle dysmorphia is much less common among more experienced bodybuilders than it is among novice bodybuilders. While researchers are unsure of the exact causes, Mitchell speculates that “those who show signs of MD are not fulfilled by the sport, and leave out,” or that “long-term participation in the sport delivers a more even attitude, lessening indicators and symptoms.”
Those at high risk for dysmorphia — those who already have depression, anxiety, and perfectionism and neuroticism inclinations — may be drawn to bodybuilding at first, and may find that atmosphere conducive to their developing dysmorphia. “Given the nature of bodybuilding competition and preparation (diet, exercise, very demanding, physique focused), it is not unreasonable to see how persons at risk of MD could begin to exhibit MD symptoms when exposed to this bodybuilding environment,” Mitchell adds.
Ultimately, despite the discipline required for bodybuilding, it should make you feel beautiful and confident more often than not. Longobardi claims that muscle dysmorphia can be more severe than healthy bodybuilding.
“have a negative impact on social, intellectual, or occupational functioning, and commonly disrupt sentimental and friendship relationships.”
Furthermore, he claims that “MD symptoms are associated with psychological symptoms, excessive distress, and unhealthy behaviors that exacerbate mental suffering.” The feeling of being constantly inadequate and being unconvinced by affirmations about one’s physical appearance from peers can be a sign that the bodybuilders will listen. More specifically, feelings of sorrow after missing an activity and feelings of being “obligated” to train are indicators that the boundary has been crossed.”
Mitchell also recommends that bodybuilders seek for minor changes between their training and their regular lives. “There is a distinction between someone who is meticulous in their diet and training and someone who focuses only on nutrition and exercise,” he says. He then encourages athletes and trainers to look for other signs of muscle dysmorphia, such as training while injured, spending more time in the gym than is typically required for the sport, and frequently withdrawing from social activities to focus on nutrition and training.
You Can Get Help and Continue Your Training
Mitchell and Longobardi both argue that social support is critical for muscle dysmorphia recovery, but don’t worry: you don’t have to give up your favorite sport totally. “The best advice is to see a psychologist,” Longobardi says, “ideally one who specializes in body image concerns or sports psychology.” “Overcoming muscle dysfunction is not linked to a negative sports experience or poor performance in agonistic activities.”
In other words, with the help of a skilled psychologist and a strong support system, you can recover from muscle dysmorphia and continue to participate in your favorite activity.
Although body dysmorphia is a serious disorder, it is vital to remember that it is nothing to be ashamed of. Bodybuilding is a sport for everyone, and as long as you do it correctly, you have nothing to be embarrassed of.