Bigorexia: when too muscled isn’t enough

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Nathyn Costello





We know women are affected by body image issues. But of course they’re not alone. Why would they be? Men are surrounded by taut bodies and rock-hard abs as much as women are surrounded by small hips and shrinking waistlines.

But the difference is mostly in one factor: women want to be smaller, men want to be bigger.

Bigorexia. Muscle dysmorphia. Call it what you will but the essence is this: when some men (women, too) in its grip look in the mirror they see a scrawny, lean physique that needs to be sculpted. And then sculpted some more. And even when they’ve got muscles bulging out of places you didn’t know muscled bulged, it’s never enough.

The biggest man mountain in the world won’t see what the rest of the world sees.

Insight on SBS featured a panel of young men, some not even 18 yet, on its ‘Massive Obsession’ show this week who were stuck in the cycle of muscle building, way beyond just ‘keeping fit’.

Just like women, men can’t turn to many places that don’t feature unrealistic – in many cases, impossible – images of bodies that ‘look better’. Like this:

See, it’s everywhere.

Anthony Nguyen is 14.

He started working out when he was 11 because he had the wrong body shape, he says.

“I started getting serious when I was 13 becuase of my body shape … the Asian race, they are really judgmental. They judge people’s sons a lot and say ‘oh, he’s so skinny’. So I started training and now I try and waste myself during those training sessions,” he says.

I want to be two or three times as big as I am now. Clean. [Not with steroids].”

Nathyn Costello, 34.

“When I was younger I saw a movie with Jean-Claude van Damme in it and I thought, I want to look like that. So that’s what I set about doing. That was everything I worked toward. I was about 13 at the time and I got this reputation as ‘the fit guy’ at school.

“I realise now I probably did, but back then I never thought I crossed a line. I took steroids. That was a long time ago. I stopped going out socially because I need to make sure I ate the right things. I needed to stick to my regime and I couldn’t do that when I was out to dinner. So I just didn’t go.

“I never took my shirt off unless I was below seven per cent body fat. You go to the gym and you see other guys who are bigger than you. It draws you in. Nowadays, I can say no to that. I still train but I do it for health and fitness, not looks.”

Anthony Farrah, 18.

“There’s no limit for me. I want to be a professional body builder one day. To me there is no limit. When I was 14 I was diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia. I lost all faith and motivation to live. When I got out of hospital I started training and it became a drug, I got hooked and it saved my life. It is my life now,” he says.

“Monday is chest and shoulders. Tuesday is legs. You can never be happy with body building. You can always excel. I wish everything was a lot bigger but particularly my legs. There’s no stopping it.

“Yeah, I enjoy eating. I enjoy the taste of success more than I enjoy the taste of any food. When I’m not training I’m distraught. I’ve been told a few times I’ve exchanged one obsession for another. But this is a healthy obsession.”

This is Farrah:

Dr Rocco Crino

Dr Crino is a clinical psychologist with the University of Western Sydney School of Psychology who treats people with body image disorders, including muscle dysmorphia.

“The perception of people with muscle dysmorphia is that they are not muscular enough. They are chasing a phantom look because when they look in the mirror they do not see themselves in a ‘normal’ manner. They do not see what is really there.

“We do not yet know what infrastructure within the brain makes this happen. We know it must be something that teams up with a number of personality factors. Things like obsession, perfectionism.

“I’ve seen cases where people go and have surgical procedures to fix the body part they view as weird or not right and the surgeon does do that … but then they blame the surgeon for doing nothing because to them it looks the same. Or, alternatively, they just transfer the obsession to a different part of their body.

“About one in 100 people have a type of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) of which muscle dysmorphia is one sub-set of that. But on a broader view, body dissatisfaction – which can be anything – accounts for some 90 to 100 per cent of the population. Many people just get on with it, others are more vulnerable and become obsessed.

“We need to be careful with how we attribute blame to the media because it needs to interact with a vulnerable individual. But yes, there is a percentage of people who can’t handle the images they see every day because they have self-esteem issues. And there are particular groups of people who are almost universally vulnerable, like adolescents.”

Do you identify with any of the body image issues in this post? What about your friends and family?

If you want to catch the fascinating episode of Insight, you can watch it online here or watch the next screening Friday, 8.30pm.

If you or a friend have concerns about body image, visit the Butterfly Foundation for more information or ring their support line 1800 334 673.

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