Bigorexia: total opposite of anorexia
Eating disorders are more widely spoken about in today’s society. However, there is a ‘new’ disorder which may not touch everyone’s lives, as it only refers to people who want to get bigger – the total opposite of anorexia.
In more generic terms, bigorexia is a disorder whereby a person constantly obsesses and/or worries about being too small, underdeveloped and/or underweight. Typically, those who suffer from bigorexia are not frail or underdeveloped at all. They actually have large muscle mass and will obsess about having the perfect physique. They will believe their muscles are inadequate.
Bigorexia has also been known as the Adonis Complex. This disorder is a form of Body Dysmorphic Disorder and is related to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Those with bigorexia constantly obsess over their imperfections, further distorting their perception of themselves.
This will significantly impair the person’s mood, often causing depression or feelings of disgust. Those dealing with bigorexia will feel inadequacies affecting many areas of their lives, ranging from personal relationships to physical and emotional health.
Both men and women can be affected by this disorder, although men are most susceptible. It is estimated that approximately 10 per cent of the men who are obsessive gym-goers have this disorder.
Many of these people may compete in bodybuilding competitions and are addicted to lifting weights. One reason bigorexia may be a common disorder is due to the common stereotype that men are meant to be big and strong.
Meeting the girlfriend of a bodybuilder, who drew my attention to this disorder, happened purely by chance. She asked for advice with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, as her boyfriend was suffering from this very badly.
When we spoke about his eating habits, it became clear that he was suffering from bigorexia. She explained that his daily diet consisted of liquidised chicken, broccoli and rice in huge amounts and taken numerous times throughout the day. Subsequently, when he tried to eat anything else, such as a steak, in the normal way, his body would not digest it.
This bodybuilder was 38 years old, ingesting steroids at a high level, and the thought of his future health, perhaps in 20 years’ time, was worrying.
Signs and symptoms may include distorted self-image, missing social events, skipping work and cancelling plans with family/friends to work out, never being satisfied with the muscular mass of one’s body, maintaining a strict, high-protein and low-fat diet, using excessive amounts of food supplements, frequently looking at oneself in the mirror, steroid abuse, unnecessary plastic surgery and even suicide, avoiding situations where one’s body might be exposed, working out even despite an injury or maintaining extreme workout methods.
Muscle dysmorphia was first identified by psychiatrists in the US two years ago. Now experts are sounding alarm bells.
“There is a growing insecurity among men about their bodies,” warns John Morgan, a consultant psychiatrist at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, who is writing a book on the subject.
“Body-image disorders like bigorexia are increasing in prevalence, and we are seeing the tip of an extensive iceberg,” Dr Morgan explains.
It’s difficult to know who suffers from bigorexia. It could be anyone in the street with a good degree of muscularity and an unhealthy obsession with image.
Most sufferers aren’t aware they have the condition and would deny it in the same way most anorexics would. What is certain is that bigorexia has a devastating impact on men’s lives.
“It can lead to a lot of unhappiness,” adds Dr Morgan. “Some people will abandon their jobs to work out. They may drop girlfriends or neglect friends and loved ones to spend more time at the gym.”
He offers the example of David, who admits the gym gets in the way of his relationships: “Girlfriends come and go, friendships come and go; but the gym is always going to be there,” David says.
At 6am, David is in his kitchen preparing his first meal of the day: porridge followed by three raw eggs and a pint of milk. Every day, he follows the same routine. He gulps down the egg cocktail, then wraps a tape measure around his biceps. It’s spot on 18 inches.
“Not bad,” he says. “But I wish they were 23 inches.” David is 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighs 14 stones – five stones more than is healthy for a man of his height. To reach his 20-stone goal, he drinks calorie and protein shakes throughout the day.
His greatest fear is losing weight and he weighs himself at home and at work regularly. In the past, his paranoia reached a point where he didn’t want to walk to the bus stop because he was so scared of losing weight.
David began weight training seriously eight years ago. He was, he says, a skinny child.
“I wasn’t really happy with myself. I used to be so thin. At first, I just decided to put on a bit of weight, but I liked the look. People told me I looked good, so I just carried it from one extreme to the other.”
The endless hours in the gym may have given David an imposing physique, but parts of his body still embarrass him. During workouts, he keeps his tracksuit bottoms on to hide his calves.
This eating disorder is being taken so seriously that the BBC is scheduling a programme called First Sight: Muscle Madness. For more information, visit www.allianceforeatingdisorders.com.