As our culture changes, so too do the conditions that come to affect our mental health. It is known that many mental health issues are the result of our environment, and the same is true of Muscle Dysmorphia Disorder (MDD), otherwise referred to as ‘Bigorexia’ or ‘Reverse Anorexia’ in the media. The obsession with one’s image is not a new idea, but the exposure and pressure we have to conform to an idealised avatar is a relatively new phenomenon. The ‘Insta-worthy’ mindset that’s taken hold of our current generation is a damaging one that has enabled and normalised a lot of what would be considered compulsive behaviours to the outside observer. Whether you want to argue with the validity of what is one the new wave mental health issues, the fact is they are very real and affect more people than you might want to believe.
A recent report concerning MDD estimated around 10% of all gym-goers in the UK – including both men and women – were suspected to be struggling with some form of the condition. These aren’t small percentages and suggest that the culture of attaining an idealised body image is more than just about physical beauty or slenderness; it can extend to whatever is desirable within a particular sub-culture of society. Rob Wilson, the chair of the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation emphasised just how serious the condition can be when he stated that the issue can lead “individuals to become very depressed and that it can even lead to suicide,” in some cases.
But what are the defining the characteristics of someone with MDD? The most obvious is a compulsive tendency to go to the gym, but from this develops other behaviours such as overexertion, training while injured, excessive ‘mirror-gazing,’ and of course the use of anabolic steroids. This opens up a whole new set of problems to deal with, such as the resulting depression and mania that accompany their long-term use, while the extremely high levels of testosterone can also lead to violent outbursts.
Despite the classification and recognition of MDD as a legitimate mental health issue, it is still isn’t straight forward to treat, as unlike conditions such as depression, anxiety and bipolar MDD can easily be written off as passion or dedication by both the individual and their social circle. Much of the associated behaviour can be normalised, especially within those of the same sub-culture. It’s very unlikely that the person who’s veering towards MDD would ever consider themselves to be compromising their mental health. And for them to receive the treatment they need, it would most likely require intervention for them to realise the damaging relationship they have with their self-image.
Unfortunately, until the condition gains more widespread coverage in the media to the extent that anorexia has, MDD sufferers will continue to lack the support they need. Greater awareness is still in short supply. There is, of course, great work being done by organisations such as the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation and others like them. But the longer-term hope is that eventually, we will move away from the idealisation of self-image and place more emphasis on the personality instead of the body. The real issue isn’t in people visiting the gym too frequently; the real problem is the crisis of self-esteem, which is causing them to over-identify with their body – which then leads to these overcompensating behaviours. As soon as we stop the need to project ourselves externally to find peace and instead turn inwards to find fulfilment, all body-image disorders will cease to present the issues that they do now. If we change our culture, we change our mental health.