Muscle dysmorphia (or more informally bigorexia) is a disorder in which a person becomes obsessed with the idea that he or she is not muscular enough. Those who suffer from muscle dysmorphia tend to hold delusions that they are ‘skinny’ or ‘too small’ but are often above average in musculature.

Sometimes referred to as reverse anorexia nervosa, or the Adonis Complex, muscle dysmorphia is strictly connected with selective attention: individuals selectively focus their attention on perceived defect (too skinny body, underweight etc.). They are hypervigilant to even small deviations from perceived ideal and they ignore information that their body image is not consistent with reality.

Sociologist Anthony Cortese views muscle dysmorphia as an obsessive compulsive disorder that reflects the dysfunctionality of gender roles in postmodern society, saying: ‘These men are obsessed with attaining an unrealistic cultural standard of muscularity as masculinity.’ A few risk factors may contribute to this disorder: family disharmony, perfectionism, severe stress, aesthetic focus, and negative influence of mass culture that promotes an idealized body.

Several hypotheses try to explain the origins of muscle dysmorphia. The cognitive theory is one of the most common explanations: it describes a vicious circle of dysfunctional thoughts: when a person has a negative appraisal of internal body image, it influences the external representation of appearance. That triggers processing self as an aesthetic object, which results in negative internal body image. The psychodynamic theory states that these are unresolved conflicts from childhood and extremely difficult feelings that are responsible for the disorder. The disorder provides a means for people to express their emotions that otherwise would be too difficult to express. In this case emotions are converted into more tolerable physical symptoms. The purpose of such conversion is to communicate extreme feelings in ‘physical language.’ Therefore a preoccupation with musculature could be treated as an individual’s unconscious displacement of sexual or emotional conflict (or feelings of guilt, or even poor self-image).

According to the biological theory a serotonin irregularity is mostly responsible for the disorder. Finally, the cognitive-behavioral theory holds that muscle dysmorphia is influenced by several factors including culture, biological predisposition, psychological vulnerabilities (e.g. low self-esteem) and early childhood experiences (e.g. bullying and teasing). Cultural factors manifest themselves in an exaggerated emphasis on appearance, physical strength and attractiveness. For instance, people compare themselves with idealized cultural figures such as unattainably muscular heroes in children’s books and action figures (e.g. G.I. Joe). There is also a hypothesis that individuals repeat negative and distorted self-statements concerning their appearance to such an extent that they become automatic. Muscle dysmorphia influences a person’s mood, often causing depression or feelings of disgust. This is often connected with constant comparing of a person’s body to an unattainable ideal.

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