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When Building Muscle Turns into Muscle Dysmorphia

Jennifer J. Waldron, Ph.D.
University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa

In today’s world, action figures, men’s magazines, television shows, and movies often portray the ideal body for men. The ideal body for men is “V-shaped” with muscular arms, a broad chest, and a narrow waist. This has resulted in many men, similar to women, being worried about and unhappy with their bodies. In order to obtain the “V-shaped” body, many men engage in weight training. Lifting weight leads to many health benefits and may bring men closer to the “V-shaped” body. Unfortunately, some men who lift weights also suffer from severe body dissatisfaction. These men see themselves as smaller and weaker than they actually are, are preoccupied with their muscles, and become consumed with weight training. These men may suffer from a body image disorder called muscle dysmorphia.

Muscle Dysmorphia
Muscle dysmorphia typically occurs in boys and men, who have a well-defined muscular build. People with this disorder believe and spend a great deal of time thinking that their muscular build is undersized and underdeveloped and desire bigger muscles.

Behaviors of People with Muscle Dysmorphia

People who have muscle dysmorphia display a number of similar behaviors. Here is a list of typical behaviors of someone who is experiencing muscle dysmorphia.

  • Extreme exercise, especially resistance and weight training
  • Many hours lifting weights
  • Constant mirror-checking
  • Avoiding social situations where they may appear muscularly small Compare their muscular build to others
  • Extreme attention to diet
  • Lifting while being injured
  • Anxiety when missing a workout
  • Neglecting family, friends, and job in order to exercise
  • Use of anabolic steroids to enhance muscle mass

Why does Muscle Dysmorphia occur?

Muscle dysmorphia is caused by an interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors. Based on their genetics, some men are more liable to experiencing muscle dysmorphia. One psychological factor that has been studied is self-esteem. Men with low self-esteem are more likely to have muscle dysmorphia than those men with high self-esteem. Finally, society (e.g., media, sports) is placing greater pressures on men to have an ideal body. The interaction of these factors leads some men, similar to women’s desire to be thin, to become obsessed with having the ideal body.

What can Health and Exercise Practitioners do to help?

  • Have pamphlets about muscle dysmorphia at the health and exercise facility
  • Do not connect the worth of people to their body size and musculature
  • Do not allow others to tease or make fun of someone’s body or muscle size
  • Continue to learn about muscle dysmorphia
  • Many people with muscle dysmorphia do not realize they have a problem and do not seek treatment; practitioners should be aware of clients who display the signs of muscle dysmorphia and encourage them to find help
  • Be supportive of someone with this body image disorder