In a world where Salman Khan and Dwayne Johnson are idolized, and where gyms are springing up in all corners, it’s not surprising that every second guy I come across is either beefed up — or is almost there.
Sure, there seems to be no obvious problem in gymming and getting bulkier. But the line that separates ‘fitness’ from ‘obsession’ is very fine — and it only gets finer as the media, the flourishing gym culture and the supplement industry attempt to aggressively erase it.
‘The Bigger The Better’
This obsessive preoccupation with muscularity is medically known as ‘muscle dysmorphia’, ‘bigorexia’ or ‘reverse anorexia’.
Speaking to FIT, Ritika Aggarwal Mehta, Consultant Psychologist at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, explains, “It is a type of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). In cases of BDD, there’s a constant feeling of distress due to a perceived anomaly — anything from a small scar to a birthmark could be the cause.”
Men with muscle dysmorphia believe they look ‘puny’ or ‘small’, when in reality they look normal or in fact, big. They always end up feeling like they’re insufficiently lean or muscular.
Around 45 percent of men are believed to suffer from the disorder at least once in their lives — and the number could be much higher if we consider the cases that go unreported (undiagnosed).
But what exactly makes it a problem?
A compulsion of this sort extends into the daily routines of these people. Their lives become an endless loop of popping pills and pumping irons; where excessive exercising and extremely rigid dieting overpowers everything else. Doping may become normalized — bringing along with it massive health risks.
‘I Was Just 19 When I Took Anabolic Steroids for the First Time’
Jeevan Aujla runs a start up called Decode Strength+Conditioning, which functions as an ‘alternative to all commercial fitness centers’ and is based on an integrative training philosophy.
His journey as a fitness enthusiast has been long and insightful. His experience helps us look at the problem from the perspective of a trainee as well as a coach.
“I was a fat and chubby Punjabi kid. I decided to join the gym when I entered college. I found myself caught up in anabolics, hardcore gym training, and even got into fitness modeling. I was taking supplements and steroids at a time when I didn’t need anything external at all — because this is the prime time for our hormones to work. But like so many others, I was completely unaware and blinded.”Jeevan Aujla
It was only later that he realized that the apparent-positive effects of steroids are not long-term, and there is no short-cut to a fit and healthy lifestyle. “Starting point of most fitness journeys is shallow and unsustainable, because every coach and gym is promising instant results and gratification.”
People become ignorant about the side-effects of steroids, he says. There are some short-term benefits, but the risks and consequences are adverse. Acne, irritability and toxicity of the liver may appear early, but effect on cognitive behavior and behavioral changes become obvious only later, when it may become too late.
In fact, a study has found that men who use anabolic steroids may face a higher risk of early death. Mortality is three times higher among users of anabolic steroids compared to non-users.
A Dark Web Spun by the Supplement Industry and Media
Jeevan believes that boys are socialized into aspiring for the ‘ideal’ body-type from the very beginning. “If you think of it, the obsession runs across all three decades: school kids, men in their mid-twenties and even those in their 40s, all want to look like the perfect man.”
Social media explosion and apps that can make you look just like you want, fuel this vanity. There’s a big push from the supplement industry to take proteins and instantly get bigger. “The same message is coming from everywhere.”
“We look at the ‘perfect’ version of a man in the media, and boys and men end up trying to copy it. In most cases, the vulnerability stems from insecurities and a constant comparison with others. For some, it may get aggravated if they are repeatedly told as children that they don’t look good enough.”Ritika Aggarwal Mehta, Psychologist
Moving on from why it happens, our experts help us examine the signs and symptoms that appear in such cases, and if/when we should start worrying.
‘It’s All About the Looks’
Ritika Aggarwal Mehta explains that the biggest question here is — What is your idea of fitness? It could mean different things to different people. Is it about your cardiovascular or respiratory health? Or is it about getting bulked up? It’s simple: If you’re not concerned about your health, but only about building muscles, then you are susceptible to bigorexia.
Some common symptoms to watch out for:
- You’re constantly talking about your body and spending long hours of the day in the gym.
- You’re not willing to take advice. Even if your trainer is telling you to not take steroids, you continue doing what you think is required.
- You follow an extremely strict diet (may even turn into an eating disorder) and even avoid social gatherings to not compromise with the diet, exercise and sleep schedule.
- Missing the gym or eating junk becomes a big deal, and you are often consumed in guilt and regret.
- Your relationships may start getting affected because you are unable to invest time and energy in them.
- You’re never satisfied with how bulked up you are, so your self-esteem may come down and you could start withdrawing from friends and family.
- You may resort to alcohol or cigarettes to steer away the stress and anxiety.
- You’re obsessed with changing the way you look — so you may repeatedly resort to surgeries, injections, and diet supplements.
- No amount of assurances seem to work. You’re almost a 100 percent sure you don’t look good.
- Mood swings are common because of steroids and constant disappointment. Jeevan mentions aggression as a common modification along with insomnia, irritability and sluggishness.
The inner circle or the peer group of a person is the most important. They are the biggest evaluators of behavioral changes, so they should be alert and vigilant.
Physical Training Needs to Go Hand-In-Hand with Mental Training
Ideally, trainers should be on a lookout for symptoms, Mehta says. The main task is in identifying the person and sending him to a psychologist.
“Getting patients to therapy could be very difficult because they don’t think they have an issue. They need to be explained and convinced that there is a problem. Once they are taken for therapy, they respond very well. Cognitive behavior therapy could be very effective. Usually that works, and in some cases, medication from a psychiatrist can also be prescribed.”Ritika Aggarwal Mehta
According to Jeevan, the benchmarks set for men need to be reworked. The role of mental conditioning, mindfulness and meditation cannot be overstated.
“The foundation of training has to be a healthy mind. So many gyms in the West conduct induction and technique classes. But here, there is no awareness or clarity from experts. This can all be corrected. For instance, in our gym, there is not a single photo of any athlete or model.”Jeevan Aujla
It needs to be reinstated again and again that practicing training is a lifelong discipline. It’s not about weight or fat, but about health. It’s about a nutritious diet and maintaining a work-life balance.
“The real gym heroes are the people who are active, happy and complete.”Jeevan Aujla
He adds that there’s a difference between training, coaching and mentoring — and all these buckets need to be filled to advocate a holistic approach to fitness and health.