It’s an age where we’re supposedly concerned with healthy eating, everything in moderation and regular exercise. Channel 4 seems to delight in the many weight-obsessed shows such as Supersize versus Super skinny and Embarrassing Fat Bodies, which fascinate and repulse us in equal measure. So you would think that we would finally have gotten the balance right. Wrong.
I went for coffee with a friend recently, although ‘going for coffee’ is a term loosely used. I had a caramel latte and (note the pronoun) he had a protein shake. His hands were shaking, and I’m not an intimidating person – he later admitted to me that he was on fat-burning pills. Apparently this was one of the side effects.
It sounds surprising, and all the more so because said friend is a man. But actually, it’s not uncommon nowadays for men to become obsessed with their weight, to begin calorie counting and caring a little, a lot, or too much about what the mirror and scale are reflecting on any particular day. It seems that, as a society, we’re not good at seeing it as a problem, much less understanding it. And to make the situation all the more difficult to deal with, it seems to be much more of a taboo for a man – especially a hulking, heavily built man – to seek help. For many, it seems as if it’s not even in their vocabularies.
In this supposedly health-conscious society, ‘body dysmorphia’ is a term, which is easily, bandied about- it’s just not one we usually extend to large, muscular men. I have several female friends who have dated men like this, and who bemoan the time spent in the gym rather than with them and the obsessive eating habits. Worse, we used to laugh at the photos posted online (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, you name it), finding them utterly ridiculous. But imagine being in this situation – spending all your time, energy and money obsessing about your looks, body and weight, missing important events and avoiding certain foods and restaurant situations at all costs. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s something we associate with anorexia or bulimia. But there’s a new term for what is a sort of reversal of anorexia (although many of the signs are the same): muscle dysmorphia. The Internet even has a nickname for it: bigorexia.
The nickname may sound ridiculous but the effects are anything but. Muscle dysmorphia afflicts at least 10% of male bodybuilders, and they describe themselves as chronically anxious that they appear puny and weak – but it’s hard to obtain accurate statistics, given the fact that there are many who won’t admit to it. Harrison G. Pope Jr. MD. of the Maclean Psychiatric Research Leader in Belmont, Massachusetts has described Muscle Dysmorphia as a sort of anorexia nervosa reversal. He thinks that men are beginning to feel the effects of the idealised images society projects, and if you look at the changes these images have undergone; from (big but still attainable) body shapes such as James Dean and John Wayne to the ridiculously large body shapes of Rambo and the Terminator, it’s easy to see how this could be a growing problem.
As yet, there is a gaping hole in the fields of comprehensive studies and research into muscle dysmorphia. This also, unfortunately, means that help is rather limited. These are men who are pushing themselves with punishing workout regimes, sometimes in spite of injuries or other work and social commitments, and some report the use of anabolic-androgenic steroids in an attempt to get bigger. For most, the lengths these men go to are not only extreme, but also practically unimaginable. Edward ‘Spyk’ Gheur, a former Hollywood stuntman, used to consume 10,000 calories per day, and spent six hours per day, six times a week in the gym. Frankly, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
There are misconceptions abound here: that these men do not need help, or that they are simply vain. Reportedly, normal weightlifters admit to spending forty minutes per day thinking about body development. Men with bigorexia find their thoughts occupied by such concerns for five hours or more daily.
As a society, it is time that we realise that the images we project effect more than women. Everyone is vulnerable, whether the person in question is an 8-stone woman or a 16-stone man. When we look at the scales or in the mirror, just when are we ever going to get it right?