Muscle dysmorphia, sometimes colloquially known as bigorexia or reverse anorexia, is a mental health condition that is starting to rear it’s head to show its domineering presence in gyms up and down the country. It’s not until recently that we are discovering the extent to which men worry about their body image, and it’s our media that may have given rise to muscle dysmorphia.
I find myself in a PureGym in Salford. It’s busy in the free weights area despite it being 10pm on a Thursday. Instead of choosing to spend an evening in front of the TV after work, there’s dozens of men lifting obserdly heavy weights.
To most, this area of the gym can be an intimidating environment, but in truth, some of these men have insecurities weighing as heavy on them than the barbell they’ve just dropped to the floor. But, unlike the barbell, these insecurities are not as easy to let go of.
I’m in one of over 150 PureGym’s in the UK. 60 were added in 2016, and the company are looking to expand to 300 gyms by 2020. The company is part of a growing trend of 24-hour gyms, allowing gym goers to use their facilities around the clock. PureGym estimate that 24 per cent of its members use the gym between 10pm and 6am.
As a society, women are perceived to worry to a greater extent about their bodies. However, figures gathered by Phycology Today Magazine indicate that from the 1970’s through to the 1990’s, male body dissatisfaction rates have increased significantly, and at a similar rate to women.
Reasons for this are cultural according to several phycologists. Harrison Pope, author of the Adonis Complex, says: “The interval from the 1960’s to the 1990’s has seen history’s most dramatic advances for women, and in parallel, the most striking changes in cultural attitudes towards men’s bodies.”
In his book, Pope discusses how the rise in status for women has influenced this obsession with men wanting to become more muscular. Women’s power in society has grown, with men feeling threatened as gender stereotypes have broken down.
Pope suggests that the only way for men to show their masculinity in today’s western society is through a muscular physique, as women are unable to reach a similar size.
In the gym I look up to see television screens plastered on all walls of the gym. Beyoncé’s music video for Run the World (Girls) is playing. I look back at the gym floor, a man in his forties wearing a string vest puts down his 18kg dumbbells, his arms bulging with veins having completed set of ten bicep curls. His eyes immediately fixate on the screen.
Is this music video a threat to his masculinity? After all his arms are twice the width of all the men in the video. If it is, there’s no escaping it, as the music is playing loudly, and the screens are encapsulating.
Video after video is played. The popstars, actors and dancers that appear in them all have astounding physiques.
“When you look at it from celebrity status to action figures, it subconsciously puts people there. People have shifted to thinking that they want to look a certain way.”
The exposure men have to the ideal Adonis body image has heightened expodentially. From magazines to TV and film, as well as social media, men can’t escape this barrage of muscular figures.
Male gym goers often seek out bodybuilding information to improve their training. However, bodybuilding publications contain wall to wall images of the perfect physique, which only exacerbates the problem.
James, 37, who identifies as having muscle dysmorphia says: “I follow probably about 25 or 30 fitness blogs.”
Male bodybuilders, like James, tend to surround themselves with images of the perfect physique for the purpose of motivation.
“When I feel trashy and I don’t feel like working out I’ve got posters of Schwarzenegger in his prime, and I feel like I need to get in there because he had such a great work ethic,” says James.
He goes on to say that it’s not just when seeking out inspiration which he sees impressive male physiques.
“It’s everywhere, every magazine, every tv show has this Adonis like male figure. He can be this 70-year-old doctor, but as soon as he takes his shirt off he’s got a 12 pack and he’s rippling with muscle and veins.”
James says this has altered male perceptions of what is the accepted physique.
“You see this and think, well this is what people want, the only way anybody will take you seriously is if you are this Greek statue of a man.”
James thinks that: “The over-saturation of perfect people that we see all across media is only going to drive us all to either just give up, because we can’t possibly look like Hugh Jackman, or it’s going to drive us to doing what I do, which is working out for 20 hours a week.”
With obesity at high levels, while gyms up and down the country are packed, with one in seven of us owning a gym membership in the UK, this statement from James seems to be true. There is a vast gulf in male fitness.
James adds that, for him, seeing images of the perfect body is: “Hurtful only in that it is impossible. I can do it, I can have the twelve pack and I can maintain it for about thirty weeks.”
Even James’ heroes had body image concerns. Arnold Schwartzenegger, an icon in the bodybuilding sphere, worried about his image.
Schwarzenegger, speaking to People Now last year, said: “I never saw perfection, there was always something lacking. I could always find a million things wrong with myself and that’s what got me back into the gym — because I started out with that mentality.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger is the biggest name in bodybuilding and his image inspires millions, but with the rise of social media, all that’s needed to inspire fellow gym goers is an Instagram account.
Ethan Pope, an 18-year-old bodybuilder from Norwich, regularly uploads onto Instagram and Youtube.
Regarding his social media presence he says: “I believe it motivates people because there is no secret.”
Ethan, like many others, started his account as a way to publicise himself as a personal trainer.
“I thought that if I could get 1000 followers that I could advertise when I’m qualified. But it blew up and now I’m at 15 thousand and I’m chuffed.”
He believes that his account is popular due to his age.
“I’ve just turned 18 and my strength is quite good compared to people a lot older than me. Also the amount of size I have put on in such a small amount of time.”
Ethan had committed himself entirely to his quest to build muscle mass. He trains seven sessions per week, with one rest day which consists of active recovery in the form of cardio.
Young men of his age would find it difficult to achieve his physique, but for his followers Ethan says: “It should be a positive. Something to strive for.”
John Chapman, one half of popular vloggers The Lean Machines, says: “You need to take things with a little bit of a pinch of salt with what you see on Instagram. People very rarely post natural pictures of themselves standing there as they would comfortably, it’ always breath it in tense it hard.”
“Fitness to us isn’t just about being physically strong, it’s about being mentally strong, it’s about being aware of your thoughts, it’s about being absolutely happy,” John Chapman
He adds: “The people who put these type of tweets out are in incredible shape. A lot of these people aren’t there naturally, so some of them will be taking steroids.”
“As a whole, all of us need to step away from social media every so often.”
Leon Bustin, the other half of the Lean Machines, produced a video to highlight the factors that go into enhancing physique photos that are found flooding social networking sites.