Updated: Feb 21, 2019
There has been a lot of discussion recently about what is known as 'bigorexia', which is one of those fashionable terms that the media loves, and which describes muscle dysmorphia (a distorted perception in the minds of some men that they lack muscle or the appearance of physical strength).
And it’s a condition which is now apparently affecting many young men, as well as teenage boys.
Now, bigorexia sounds similar to anorexia nervosa (a condition, suffered mainly by women, which is a mental disorder characterised by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat) and on a superficial level the two conditions appear to be related.
Anorexia nervosa and the damage it can cause is well known. It can lead to deep mental and physical damage and, in some cases, to major organ failure on the part of those who suffer from the condition, brought on by the adoption of a diet which starves the body of the nutrients it needs to function healthily.
The roots of anorexia nervosa have been speculated upon as residing in mental illness and the pressure that women can feel to epitomise the supposed female (physical) ideal of slimness (or indeed, delicateness).
So what's the deal with bigorexia? Is it a real condition and, if so, why are so many mainly young guys defining themselves and shaping their lives around a self image which is out of whack with reality?
Where bigorexia does follow the ‘similar to anorexia nervosa’ script is that it is characterised by a perceived male physical ideal of muscularity and obvious strength and vitality.
Thus the 'big' in bigorexia.
To reach this apparent ideal those men so affected may be encouraged to rely on heavy supplement use, to regularly abuse supplements, and push their bodies in and out of the gym in a fashion which can lead to physical damage and illness (and that's even before we get into the associated mental damage that can be associated with this kind of behaviour).
So, how on earth have we got in this mess, and what's to be done about it?
Well, I think it's telling that the early evidence suggests that it is young men who are most affected by the bigorexia condition (again, mirroring the situation with anorexia nervosa) and that it has revealed itself in this particular historical period.
Young men today are more vulnerable as individuals starting out on their life journey, which should lead to self-awareness, a meaningful career, loving relationships and familial responsibility. As has been long established, male emotional development continues into the twenties (and does not finish until 24/25). So, up to this point most young men are still growing emotionally and are particularly open to influence on their feelings and thought processes.
In the current multi-media, online environment that influence can come literally 24-hours a day, and can have an accelerated and oppressive quality. Combine these factors with a very competitive jobs market, where men and women and up against each other in the (potential) workplace as never before, and young men can easily come to see their potential value and attractiveness as coming just as much from their superficial physical attributes as from their internal virtues.
Just as women may have done a generation ago when the labour market was tipped very much in the favour of men.
And if that is the case, to stand out from the crowd young men today may need to fulfil a quickly and easily recognisable external ideal before another competitor male takes their place in an ever shifting spotlight and gets the reward.
It’s a pretty unhealthy mix and as a Personal Trainer I encounter male insecurity a lot, just as much as I encounter an open desire on the part of some (mainly, though not exclusively young) men to take whatever short cut is available to get big and buff as quickly as is possible.
And I understand how the here and now can dominate.
As a 36-year-old man myself, however, I do point out the benefits of going long to build physical presence, enduring fitness, personal happiness and (get this) character. Because in my experience the road to fitness and happiness is linked, and it is only through building self-awareness and individual caliber that one can lead to the other.
At the end of the day it is only by developing the strength of our inner self, together with our external physique, that we can define ourselves in a competitive and potentially threatening age (and in the process also successfully define our own resilience and masculinity).
Which in the long run is worth a lot more, and is far more attractive in the eyes of either sex, than any amount of supplements or muscle-building routines.