by Eston Dunn, MS, BSE, BFA, AFAA, ACE, ACSM
Special For eFitness

OK, guys, time to fess up. Ever look in the mirror at the gym and still not like the ripples of muscle you see? Not satisfied with your six-pack, because it “should be” an eight-pack? Having five percent body fat isn’t lean enough? Then you may be joining the fraternity of men that suffer from muscle dysmorphia, a dissatisfaction and obsession with what they perceive (often inaccurately) as the underdevelopment of their bodies.

In efforts to fix their perceived puniness, muscle dysmorphics compulsively pump iron and monitor minute changes in their body composition like geologists measure imperceptible shifts in the tectonic plates. Many of them take steroids or other muscle-building drugs, despite a catalog of health risks as long as the Physician?s Desk Reference.

Muscle dysmorphia is a subset of body dysmorphia, a phenomenon historically observed almost exclusively in women that manifests in anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders. In fact, experts consider muscle dysmorphia to be the opposite of anorexia — some have labeled it “bigorexia.”

Because muscle dysmorphia has only emerged in the last decade or so, there are no solid statistics on it. Experts estimate that anywhere from 300,000 to several million American men suffer from dysmorphic disorders to the point where it destabilizes their lives.

Men comprise 5-10 percent of all cases of anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders, and the number of muscle dysmorphics is estimated to be far higher. This “disorder” affects men of all ages, yet it is most common among adolescents and young adult males, many of them athletes. You find it among bodybuilders and power lifters who work out constantly and who are hugely muscular, but always find a chink in their armor. You?ll hear sentences like “I gotta work out my abs,” with the same illogical thinking as an emaciated anorexic who moans, “My abs are flabby and I need to lose weight.”

So, what has caused the American male to go from stoic breadwinner to neurotic bread-avoider (too many carbs), from heterosexual to “metrosexual” (a new term for straight urban professionals preoccupied with exercise, clothes, cosmetics and other aspects of their appearance traditionally reserved for the thinking of homosexual men)?

Professionals in this field of study first believe that it is an increasing concern with obesity and the illnesses it causes (heart disease, diabetes…), leading to a morbid fear of fat.

Secondly, society?s moral measurement of one?s waistline is cited: Being good is being in control, while fat is one of the dirtiest words in our culture. Perhaps more influential is our increasingly youth-oriented culture and what has been called “the glorification of male power” reflected in movies, billboards and the phenomenal rise of pro wrestling.

Men face enormous pressure to attain an idealized image of beauty. As the population gets bigger and the beauty ideal gets smaller, there?s a growing disparity between reality and image. The Schwarzenegger ideal — broad-shouldered, V-tapered, well-endowed, hypermuscular — is insistently reinforced by buff celebrities, reality show judges (who belittled the contestants? bodies), sports talk radio ads (heavy on weight-loss and muscle-building products) and even toys (if the latest G.I. Joe were life-sized, he would sport a 48-inch chest, 32-inch waist and impossible 32-inch biceps). The message that this information is sending to men is that there is something wrong with you.

Evolving gender roles and the greater autonomy of women also have contributed to male insecurity, especially among male heterosexuals. Heterosexual females are more selective in choosing a mate. In the past, heterosexual males just had to be successful; now they have to be successful and beautiful. The incidence of divorce tosses many heterosexual men back into the increasingly competitive dating pool, forcing them to maintain a youthful mien, whether by diet, exercise, or cosmetic surgery: a dilemma experienced in the male homosexual community for decades.

Many men in general are reeling from the blows of an increasingly complex, fast-paced, and impersonal society and the economic displacement it often creates. In a German study, most muscle dysmorphics were from the lower socioeconomic classes and performed poorly in school. The loss of exclusive control over economic assets means that many men, just as women in the past, need to look appealing for more financially well-off mates.

Men who are dissatisfied with their jobs and relationships channel their energies into their bodies, the last bastion of control. That doesn’t mean that men that have scaled the corporate ladder are immune to muscle mania. In the corporate world, one deals with images and how people perceive you.

People see fatness as a lack of control and ambition. That?s why most top executives squeeze time in for their personal trainer — or have jaw, chest and calf implants. These forces cause men to have poor self-esteem, which afflicts not just the pencil-necked clerk who will never measure up to what he doesn’t know are air-brushed, juiced-up Adonises. That?s why many muscle-bound men who use steroids and human growth hormone to inflate themselves would never enter into a bodybuilding show, for they feel they aren’t ready. They are too insecure.

Compounding the issue is that the reluctance of many men to admit both their feelings of inadequacy and the frenzied muscling up they do to compensate. Men in general do not buy books or look at the issue of dysmorphia carefully. Men either are afraid to admit it or buy into the stereotypes of hunky guys.

Those men, who do notice a problem, often avoid treatment. What they are doing is sacrificing time and money — if not jobs and families in some cases — in the pursuit of unrealistically mesomorphic dreams. When a conventional regimen still leaves them feeling like they ?re the scrawny kid picked last in gym, they turn to steroids. Twenty years ago, steroids were rarely found outside the professional bodybuilding circles. Today they are in neighborhood chain gyms.

Experts are devising strategies to treat and prevent muscle dysmorphia. They include educating teachers, coaches and personal trainers on proper exercise and nutrition. In the search for a “perfect body,” A man can get bigger, stronger and faster by using state-of-the-art sports medicine, nutrition and training. However, using your own testosterone, not somebody else?s, is more realistic.

Eston R. Dunn graduated from Florida Atlantic University in 1990 with a Bachelor Degree in Fine Arts and Exercise Science and Wellness. Eston has been in exercise videos and is certified in exercise leadership/personal training through the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), American Council on Exercise (ACE), and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). He is an educator in Anatomy and Physiology and a trainer and teacher at a gym in Wilton Manors, Florida.

Written by