Column: Muscle dysmorphia: an underlying problem in bodybuilding community

Despite being rock-hard on the surface, feelings of inadequacy plague the bodybuilding community.

Corey Davidson is a junior journalism major at MU. He is an opinion columnist who writes about student life and politics for The Maneater.

BroScience founder Mike Tornabene, otherwise known as his character “Dom Mazzetti,” said it best in his 2017 tweet, “The day you started lifting was the day you became forever small.” While a persistent joke in many bodybuilding forums and Reddit threads, the sentiment behind this is somewhat sad and very real. Behind many impressive physiques and hard-faced gym selfies lie feelings of inadequacy and a hunger to look better. I’m talking, of course, about body dysmorphia among lifters.

One of the best parts of the fitness journey has to be the acquisition of beginner gains. Usually a month or two after starting to lift, you see the emergence of your muscles in the mirror for the first time. The happiness and achievement can only be expressed through some self-indulging flexes and a proud grin. If you’re anything like me, your first sign of improvement was almost life changing.

However, like the luster of Christmas gifts, this gratifaction can slip away. After a while of experiencing being big and strong, you start to realize you are not so big and strong. All of the sudden, your bench max isn’t impressive because someone else can double that. Your bicep definition is negligible, because you lack the arm veins. The body, which had just brought so much glory and joy, betrays you by simply not being good enough.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine published a study in 2002 on this very subject. The study points to the existence of “muscle dysmorphia,” a syndrome found in both men and women that causes one to be dissatisfied with the appearance of their entire body despite being muscular. Study participants with muscle dysmorphia self-reported that they were always below their goal weight, had a consistently poor body image and had a disposition to steroid abuse.

While experts claim this particular subject needs more research, I feel that it is still useful. A big part of lifting is learning to rely on yourself and trusting in your own strength and determination. At the individual level, muscle dysmorphia can seem like just another motivator to try harder. However, I firmly believe it is a serious problem that can wear on a person. If more research is done and more lifters can hear that other people feel the same way, perhaps the incessant self-loathing can be helped.

Muscle dysmorphia can be different for everybody, like many facets of mental health. Some days, I gloat, walk around shirtless and flex at everyone I can. Other days, I don’t even want to look into a mirror and speak harshly of my lifting. Sometimes in bodybuilding, it seems like the grass is always greener on the other side.

The best way to combat this, in my experience, is to not compare oneself to others and to keep close friends who also lift. The difference is monumental when you have a buddy to hype you up after a hard lift. Saying something as simple as “Your benching today was savage!” can really boost your friend’s confidence.

We need more lifters supporting lifters. While compliments and appreciation of each other’s fitness may not get rid of muscle dysmorphia, it’s a step in the right direction.

As American philosopher John Dewey once said, “The deepest urge in human nature is the desire to be important.” Bodybuilding is another extension of this urge: the urge to struggle, feel better, look better and be important to others with physical feats. While setting goals and wanting to look better is great, take heed that these goals do not consume your being.

Lifting will always have a special place in my heart, and not just because of all the pre-workout supplements. Lifting is fun and rewarding, though your expectations for yourself will rise with your strength. Even if you do not think you’re good enough as a lifter, you’re better than you were yesterday.

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