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All the Pieces of You Fit Perfectly: Bodybuilding and Body Dysmorphia

All the Pieces of You Fit Perfectly: Bodybuilding and Body Dysmorphia

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve discreetly (or not so secretly) done a muscle-building posture in the mirror and wondered if your muscles are big enough and defined enough.

It’s natural for gym-goers who want to build muscle mass to track their progress, both physically in terms of how much we can lift and aesthetically, in terms of how our clothes fit and how much our traps pop in the selfies we don’t take. But there’s a fine line between enjoying and needing changes to our bodies — muscle dysmorphia.

What Is Muscle Dysmorphia?

Dysmorphia is defined as the inability to appropriately see one’s own bodily shape in the mirror. Muscle dysmorphia (MD), according to the Physique Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, is characterized by an extreme fixation with seeming “too puny” or “not muscular enough,” which might be accompanied by compulsive monitoring one’s own body and/or constantly comparing one’s muscles to other people’s.

Overtraining even when injured or weary, chemical usage such as excessive supplementing or steroid abuse, and disordered eating can all be indications of muscular dysmorphia.


The DSM-5 And Muscle Dysmorphia

The DSM-5 And Muscle Dysmorphia

Muscle dysmorphia is classified as an obsessive-compulsive disorder by the DSM-5, and it is characterized by the following symptoms:

“Obsession with one or more perceived flaws or deficiencies in physical appearance that are not visible to others or appear minor to them.”

In reaction to the appearance concerns, the individual has engaged in repetitive actions (e.g., mirror checking, excessive grooming, skin picking, reassurance seeking) or mental activities (e.g., comparing his or her look to that of others) at some time during the disorder’s course.

The anxiety creates clinically considerable suffering or impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning. Concerns about body fat or weight do not explain the appearance preoccupation in an individual whose symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder.

Muscle dysmorphia is characterized by the individual’s preoccupation with the thought that his or her body build is too tiny or insufficiently muscular. This specifier is employed even if the individual is concerned with other portions of the body, which is common.”

The guidebook then advises clinicians to assess people’s self-awareness of their muscular dysmorphia, noting that doctors should:

“Indicate your level of understanding of body dysmorphic disorder views (for example, “I look ugly” or “I seem malformed”).

  • With good or fair insight, the person realizes that the body dysmorphic disorder beliefs are either definitely or probably not accurate, or that they may or may not be true.
  • Individuals with inadequate insight believe that their body dysmorphic thoughts are probably real.
  • Individuals with absent insight/delusional ideas are entirely sure that their body dysmorphic thoughts are correct.”

In layman’s terms, all of this means that serious lifters are frequently focused with our muscle size and appearance: yet, there is a delicate line where our generally healthy lifting can feed a potentially harmful and need to better our bodies, even through risky ways.

What Do Experts Say?

Bodybuilding can be a blessing, a curse, or both for persons who are prone to muscular dysmorphia, according to Lachlan Mitchell, lead author of a 2017 study on muscle dysmorphia among bodybuilders published in the journal Sports Medicine. His 2017 study discovered a link between bodybuilders with muscle dysmorphia and melancholy, anxiety, neuroticism, and perfectionism.

Of course, not all bodybuilders who suffer from depression have muscle dysphoria, but Mitchell claims that “under the right circumstances, meaning a competitive environment, training, a focus on nutrition, and body composition, these individuals who demonstrate other psychological factors (depression, anxiety, and self-esteem) may manifest muscle dysmorphia characteristics.”

However, experts are quick to remind out that bodybuilding is not inherently harmful. Claudio Longobardi, the author of another 2017 study on muscle dysmorphia published in the journal Psychiatry Research, reminds us that,

“We do not believe that bodybuilding is a detrimental practice for people’s psychological well-being.”

However, he observes that bodybuilding and the quest of increasing muscularity are strongly associated with masculinity in contemporary American culture. As a result, he claims,

“Bodybuilding may be a road that some people follow to try to compensate for some psychological demands, such as a fear of rejection or a sense of insecurity/danger.”

Because of the link between toxic masculinity and muscle dysmorphia, both researchers believe that women are understudied when it comes to the interaction between dysmorphia and bodybuilding. Nonbinary and trans persons are also understudied in this area, however it’s worth noting that transmasculine people viewing themselves as “not muscular enough” is one major way that gender dysphoria and muscle dysmorphia can cross.

How Can You Tell If You’re Just a Serious Bodybuilder Or If Something Dangerous Is Going On?

Muscle dysmorphia is significantly less common among more experienced bodybuilders than it is among novice bodybuilders, according to Mitchell. While researchers are unaware of the specific causes, Mitchell speculates that “those who show signs of MD are not fulfilled by the sport, and leave out, or that continuing in the sport long term offers a more even attitude, lowering signs and symptoms.”

Those at high risk for dysmorphia — those who already have depression, anxiety, and tendencies toward perfectionism and neuroticism — may be lured to bodybuilding at first, and may find that environment favourable to their rising dysmorphia. “Given the nature of bodybuilding competition and preparation (diet, exercise, very rigorous, physique focused), it is not unreasonable to understand how those who may be at risk of MD could begin to display MD symptoms when exposed to this bodybuilding environment,” Mitchell adds.

Ultimately, despite the discipline required for bodybuilding, it should make you feel wonderful and confident more often than it makes you feel…well, horrible. According to Longobardi, muscle dysmorphia can be more severe than healthy bodybuilding.

“have a detrimental impact on social, academic, or work functioning, and frequently interfere badly with sentimental and friendship relationships.”

Furthermore, he claims, “MD symptoms are related with psychological symptoms, excessive distress, and unhealthy behaviors that exacerbate mental suffering.” The feeling of continually being inadequate and being unconvinced by affirmations about one’s physical appearance from peers can be a clue that the bodybuilders will listen. More clearly, emotions of remorse when you miss an exercise and sensations of being “obligated” to train are signs that the line is being crossed.”

Mitchell also advises bodybuilders to look for subtle differences between their training and their daily life. “There is a difference between someone who is highly measured in their diet and training and someone who concentrates solely on nutrition and exercise,” he explains. He goes on to encourage athletes and trainers to check for other indicators of muscle dysmorphia, such as training while injured, spending more time in the gym than is generally required for the sport, and constantly withdrawing from social engagements to focus on their nutrition and training.

You Can Get Help and Continue Your Training


You Can Get Help and Continue Your Training

Mitchell and Longobardi both argue that social support is essential for healing from muscle dysmorphia, but don’t worry: you don’t have to give up your favorite sport entirely. “The best advice is to see a psychologist, preferably one who specializes in body image issues or sports psychology,” Longobardi advises. “Overcoming muscular dysfunction is not associated with a poor sports experience or worse performance in agonistic events.”

In other words, you can recover from muscle dysmorphia and continue to participate in your favorite activity under the guidance of a trained psychologist and with a robust support structure in place.


Despite the fact that body dysmorphia is a serious condition, it is important to keep in mind that it is nothing to be ashamed of. Bodybuilding is a sport for everyone, and as long as you are going about it the right way, there is nothing to be ashamed of.

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