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Distorted Perceptions Of Muscularity!

This article will outline the publicized, problematic, aspects of bodybuilding, stemming from MDD obsessiveness. Ways to engage in a beneficial bodybuilding lifestyle without becoming obsessed and, in the process, diluting other areas of ones life.

One could assume judging from bodybuilding's many success stories, its relative popularity, and the numerous benefits to be gained from its practice, that it is largely unproblematic. This indeed does seem to be the case with most sensible bodybuilding practitioners claiming to have improved their health, confidence and outlook on life through bodybuilding.

However, there is a darker side to this, in many respects, seemingly virtuous sport. As with any activity, obsession can rear its ugly head and transform a bodybuilders quest for physical excellence into a daily struggle for muscle at all costs. A pathological preoccupation with increased muscularity may develop from here and the narcissistic implications of this particular occurrence make a large ego seem a desirable acquisition. But what exactly constitutes shrivel for muscle at all costs?

I guess this depends on ones goals, but I think it would be reasonable to say that if ones health and social ties are compromised for an additional 10 or so pounds of muscle, there must be some pretty misguided thinking at play. I say this with the average bodybuilder in mind.

The trainer who will probably never win a national title let alone the Mr. Olympia and who would be advised to take a reasonable approach to gaining mass; with a view to being the best they can be through hard work and a balanced lifestyle. So it does come down to realistic goals, determined through destiny and logical thinking.

Sacrificing everything, including sanity and health (perhaps), might be an option for a chosen, genetically blessed, few. For the rest of us, a reasonable approach, which will be explained later, is probably best.

Bodybuilding taken to the extreme, with incessant drug use and an obsessive outlook, can, at the minor end of the scale, cause a few relatively minor health problems and perhaps some severed ties. At the extreme end, death and severe mental problems may occur.

In fact bodybuilding has developed a negative reputation (admittedly, primarily within the sociology literature) based on the actions of a number of its practitioners (Klein, 1993, 1995, 1986; Pope, Gruber, Choi, Olivardia & Phillips, 1997; Weigers, 1998). In view of the literature it seems that, ultimately, bodybuilding's damaging consequences stem from obsessive thinking.

This notion of obsessive thinking as it relates to bodybuilding is encapsulated best in the actions and thought processes of those with Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder (MDD). Sometimes referred to as "Bigarexia", MDD, the obsessive quest for muscle size, is considered to be the opposite of anorexia nervosa, a pathological preoccupation with weight loss.

People with MDD, as had been found in at least one study (Olivardia, Pope, & Hudson, 2000), obsess about being small and underdeveloped even when there is sufficient evidence to suggest otherwise. They then may exercise compulsively and take performance enhancing drugs to correct this perceived deficit. Muscle dysmorphia can also impair social and occupational functioning, cause subjective distress.

This article will outline the publicized, problematic, aspects of bodybuilding, stemming from MDD obsessiveness. Ways to engage in a beneficial bodybuilding lifestyle without becoming obsessed and, in the process, diluting other areas of ones life will also be considered.

MDD: Who Is At Risk & How Common Is It?

MDD effects both male and female bodybuilders/weight enthusiasts. Given that the culturally defined image of a male is more closely associated with muscle size, while the ideal for a woman is the small and thin model type physique, it is suspected that MDD has a higher prevalence among the male community.

However, there are no statistics to prove this. One is diagnosed with MDD when it is shown that its repercussions significantly effect ones life in a negative manner. Prior to MDD, a similar diagnoses was given to people who suffered from any other perceived physical defect.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) was the name given to these people. However, with the popularity of bodybuilding came the importance of muscle gain, and the emergence of MDD (a sub-group of BDD). It is suggested that in many ways the two disorders are very similar.

An international team of researchers conducted a study and found that 24 men with MDD displayed prominent pathology (Olivardia, Pope, & Hudson, 2000). A body dysmorphic modification of the Yale-Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale, used by the researchers, reported 50% of these men spent three-hours per day thinking about their muscularity.

Furthermore, 58% reported moderate or severe avoidance of activities, places and people because of their perceived defect, and 54 reported little or no control over their compulsive dietary and weight lifting regimens. "It appears that the disorder produces substantial morbidity, together with maladaptive behaviors such as anabolic steroid abuse and thus may have important implications for public health," the researchers said.

Principal researcher Harrison Pope, MD, of McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA said, "the typical MDD patient will look in the mirror and see himself or herself as out of shape".

Other consequences of MDD are its interference with school and career accomplishments and lack of enjoyment of life due to excessive self consciousness and constant worry stemming from perceived smallness. Drug use is also a major implication.

The etiology of MDD is open to speculation at this point, but there is some evidence to suggest at least one influential factor: Social-cultural influences such as an "ideal" male body image may cause one to develop an obsession toward acquiring such a physique.

Compare the physiques of a young Marlon Brando vs a young Brad Pitt.

Movie stars, and even children's toys, have become increasingly muscular over recent years. This reinforces a certain image and possibly perpetuates a "mass at all costs" culture among bodybuilders.

Courses Of Action Against MDD

Indeed, MDD can potentially destroy ones life, as they become increasingly obsessive in their quest for muscle size. Once one is diagnosed with MDD it is recommended that family members and friends try to persuade the individual to concentrate on other aspects of their life, to take the focus of themselves.

Oftentimes, however, MDD individuals will not listen to any advice, choosing instead to continue their destructive ways based on the misguided assumption they are small. The next step is generally cognitive-behavioral therapy (a type of therapy based on the assumption that our thoughts control our behaviors; one can change the way they think to improve the way they feel) combined with medication.

Probably the best solution to the obsession/healthy interest dichotomy would be to continue training hard, with a view to building huge muscles, but also take a backward step and think about things a little more realistically. Given that many people, myself included, like to think they have a healthy obsession with bodybuilding and are able to balance bodybuilding with other facets of their lives, some people take things to the extreme.

Why? Perhaps it is because they are viewing the importance of bodybuilding in their lives in idealistic terms, out of context with the reality of their lives. For example, why would I aspire to look like Ronny Coleman or Jay Cutler when I would never reach their level of development with any number of interventions.

The key is to plan an achievable goal and when this goal has been achieved, move on to the next. In other words, know your limitations and plan accordingly. There is nothing wrong with pushing physical boundaries as far as they can be pushed, as long as obsessive thinking does not arise as a by-product of this pushing.

It is important to note that all gains are good and we can only gain when all aspects of the bodybuilding lifestyle are adhered to, particularly if one is training naturally. Diet, training, rest and emotional status are key components of this lifestyle.

MDD related stress will only serve to further compromise gains as it will impact emotional status, rest and disrupt nutrient uptake and strength. It follows that MDD is counterproductive to gaining in the long run due to the psychological and physical damage it incurs.


  1. Doctors Guide. (1997). Muscle Dysmorphia -- Bodybuilding Gone Amuck. [On line]
  2. Klein, A.(1993). Little Big Men: Bodybuilding Subculture and Gender Construction. University of New York Press: Albany.
  3. Klein, A.(1995). Life's Too Short to Die Small. In Sabo, D., & Gordon F., D. (Eds.), Men's Health and Fitness: Gender, Power and the Body. (pp 105-120). Sage: London.
  4. Klein, A.(1986). Pumping Irony: Crises and Contradiction in Bodybuilding. Sociology in Sport Journal, 3, 112-133
  5. Olivardia, R. Pope, H. & Hudson, J.(2000). Muscle Dysmorphia in Male Weightlifters: A Case-Control Study. American Journal of Psychiatry 157:1291-1296
  6. Pope, H. Phillips, K. Olivardia, R. Choi, P. & Gruber, A,. J.(1997). Muscle Dysmorphia: An Unrecognized Form of Body Dysmorphic Disorder? Psychosomatics, 38, 548-557
  7. Weigers, Y.(1998). Male Bodybuilding: the Social Construction of Masculine Identity. Journal of Popular Culture, 32 (2), 147-161

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