Bigorexia Is Impacting Young Boys and Men More Than Ever

As images of muscly men with abs increasingly inundate social media users, more and more boys and men are suffering from bigorexia: a body dysmorphic disorder characterized by an unhealthy obsession with increasing muscle mass and reducing fat.

It’s been well established that social media can have a detrimental effect on body image and self-esteem, though this is most often spoken about when it comes to the effects on girls and young women. In reality, boys and men are just as susceptible to body image issues, and many are developing bigorexia as a result of images they’re seeing online.

Chanakya Ramdev is one such person. The writer, now 32, found himself feeling deeply insecure and dissatisfied with his appearance in his late 20s.

“Subconsciously, body image issues were implanted in my mind when I started seeing guys with their eight packs,” Ramdev tells Healthnews. “Consciously, the first time I felt body image issues was when I was tagged in group pictures on social media and I realized I was the fat friend.”

He says social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok bombarded him with images of perfectly sculpted bodies, creating an unattainable standard he felt pressured to conform to.

Bigorexia is growing phenomenon

The concept of bigorexia is relatively new territory, according to Joseph Trunzo, Ph.D., a professor of psychology specializing in mood and anxiety disorders, abnormal psychology, and drugs and behavior at Bryant University.

Trunzo says that while the pressure on girls and women to attain a certain beauty has always been relentless, with the omnipresence of social media, idealized body depictions are now impacting boys as well.

“Twenty years ago, most of our action stars looked pretty regular,” Trunzo says. “Now it seems like every male actor stepping into the role of superhero or action star has to complete months of grueling workouts and strict diets to achieve that unrealistic physique.”

Thanks to social media algorithms, he says, boys and men are exposed to a relentless feed of these unrealistic body types and builds. What viewers aren’t seeing are the filters, the special lighting, the spray tans, and the extreme dieting and fitness protocols that go into achieving that bodybuilder physique, Trunzo says.

In 2020, one study analyzed 1,000 Instagram posts of male bodies and found that “Instagram is clearly saturated with posts depicting very lean and very muscular white men exercising” and that posts showing this body type received more likes and shares than content depicting men with other body types.

Indeed, it was these constant visuals that led Ramdev to compare himself to these bodybuilders and feel ashamed of how he looked.

It made me feel inadequate and pressured to conform to an idealized version of masculinity that seemed unattainable. I felt embarrassed of my appearance.

Ramdev

The dangers of bigorexia

While not an official medical diagnosis, bigorexia can have detrimental mental and physical health impacts, Trunzo says.

This sort of body obsession can lead to things like compulsive mirror checking, feeling inadequate about the size and shape of your body, and disordered eating that can include a strict diet along with supplementation and even dangerous steroid use.

The mental health implications, meanwhile, include increased depression, anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness.

In Ramdev’s case, he says he found himself preoccupied with the thought of losing fat and gaining muscle to an extreme and unhealthy degree.

“I would do extreme diets and extreme exercises to achieve the muscular look that I wanted,” he tells Healthnews. “I even did ego deadlifting and almost broke my back. The relentless pursuit of a hyper-muscular physique became an unhealthy obsession, overshadowing my well-being.”

Despite the dangers, some of the behaviors associated with bigorexia can camouflage as habits that appear “healthy,” Trunzo says, which can make it difficult to identify.

“Of course going to the gym is healthy, of course eating nutrient dense food is healthy,” he says. “But it can slip into behavior that is no longer healthy and can veer toward dangerous behaviors, from overtraining to disordered eating to steroid and other drug use.”

Finding support

One of the main barriers that prevents people from accessing support for bigorexia is the stigma associated with getting help, Trunzo says, which is particularly alive and well for boys and men.

“There is a misconception that men are ‘weak’ if they access mental health care – it’s still really stigmatized,” he says. “So it’s important to normalize mental wellness in boys and men.”

When it comes to supporting teenage boys, he says parents are the first line of defense. He recommends that parents have regular conversations with their kids about what they are consuming on social media and how what they see may not be real or attainable.

And if you or your child are really struggling, he suggests reaching out to a qualified mental health provider to get help.

If you live in a healthcare desert, telehealth options became more abundant during the pandemic, he says, and some states participate in PSYPACT — which allows clinicians to cross state borders via telehealth to treat patients.

In Ramdev’s case, it wasn’t professional help he sought but support from others going through the same thing he was.

“The gym became my community,” he says. “I talked to guys there and I realized the unhealthy feelings I was feeling were the exact same as what they were feeling — it was a great bonding experience.”

This approach, and other ways of bringing attention to the issue, are urgently needed, he says.

“It's time to redefine masculinity beyond superficial appearances and promote self-acceptance and mental well-being,” Ramdev says. “The pressure to attain an unrealistic physique can lead to serious mental health issues, and raising awareness is essential in promoting body positivity and self-acceptance for all genders.”


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