Spending hours in the gym is second-nature to some men, particularly those who don’t train for pure fitness, but for aesthetics as well. While the occasional glance in the mirror poses no immediate health threat — save for a stiff neck, perhaps — an unrelenting obsession with body image does. Medical experts call it muscle dysmorphia, but insiders have adopted more colloquial jargon in the fight against constant muscle building, otherwise known as “bigorexia.”
The term is admittedly crude — you’re unlikely to glean any Latin roots from it — but bigorexia has graver implications than its flippant name suggests. Constant obsession with body image can result in unhealthy exercise habits, eating disorders, and injurious levels of intensity during workouts. It can also lead to a raft of psychological disorders, including anxiety and depression. The term is unique in its gender association as well, as problems of body issue often fall on female shoulders. Bigorexia not only highlights a more equitable division of perceptual problems, but also reveals important distinctions in how certain people are “supposed to look.”
As much as 45 percent of men are dissatisfied with their bodies, according to Dr. Michele Kerulis, the director of sports and health psychology at the Adler School of Professional Psychology. Kerulis said the characteristic bursts of anger, known as “roid rage,” could in fact be products of pent-up personal anguish.
“We see psychological abnormalities, including irritability, angry outbursts, which sometimes people would call ‘roid rage,’” she said. “We see depression sometimes, mania.”
One in 10 people diagnosed with eating disorders is a man, Kerulis added in an interview with CBS 2.
The story for bigorexic men plays out in much the same way as it does for women who see waifish, airbrushed models gracing the cover of magazines. Vascular, bronzed hulks flex each vein into place and give the impression that that image is normal.
“I can remember as young as 13 or 14, looking at some of these muscle magazines, and I was conditioned to think that’s what a man looked like,” said Alfonso Moretti, who spent a large portion of his life bigorexic. “Big shoulders, big legs, just big muscles with veins everywhere.”
Life As A Bigorexic
Moretti now works regular hours as a personal trainer, but for a long time he spent unhealthy stretches of time obsessing over each component of his physique. Mornings were early. Nights were late. Not a second went by that Moretti wasn’t fixated on his body.
“It takes over your life,” he told CBS 2. “Every decision you make becomes the workout and how your body looks. I used to track and weigh every single ounce of food that went in my body. I used to wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning to drink protein shakes. I never missed a workout, ever, ever, ever.”
Persistent taxes on the body eventually wear it down. Minor aches and pains, such as joint discomfort, and decreased mobility from inflammation fall on the less severe side. However, debilitating injuries to the neck and spine are common as well.
“I had a ruptured disc in my neck and it basically paralyzed me on the right side of my body,” Moretti explained.
The bigorexic lifestyle often sees troubling behavior, evidenced by Moretti’s account of 3 o’clock mornings and never-ending protein shakes. Workout supplements in conjunction with a healthy food diet can easily become the subject of overuse.
“Individuals who have bigorexia, a lot of them tend to use supplements and if you overdose on these supplements without having a balanced diet you can develop kidney and liver failure,” explained Dr. Selene Parekh, an associate professor at Duke University, “and as that happens you may need a liver or kidney transplant or you could eventually die.”
The good news is that bigorexia, like many psychological conditions, isn’t immune to treatment. Behavior therapy and supervised exercise regimens, experts say, help people reinforce healthy habits. Moreover, establishing a root cause for the disorder and working toward a stable, moderate level of self-analysis promote a larger, healthier focus on well-being, with minimal focus on appearance alone.
“I look back now and I see those pictures,” Moretti said, “and I’m like ‘wow,’ like I would never want to look like that guy.”