“The last three years of my life have been a nightmare. Several times a day, I constantly looked at myself in the mirror and checked my weight on the scale. I spent countless hours at the gym, but I felt weak. At home, I was always grumpy and didn’t eat anything except proteins, cereals and pasta. I started taking some pills that a friend recommended to feel stronger and more self-assured. My mood changed completely. Two months later, my parents decided to seek medical help. I lost all my friends, my girlfriend and failed my first course at the University. I am now under psychiatric treatment and trying to love me as I am.” These are bitter words from Alberto R., an 18-year-old Spaniard who fell into the clutches of a disease called bigorexia.
Bigorexia is a new type of dysmorphia, the distorted image of our own body that causes obsession and rejection. This disease is as delicate as anorexia or bulimia, and also related to orthorexia.
This new evil attacks mostly young men and was first described by Dr. Harrison Pope, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who defined it as “a disorder related to the perception of physical appearance, characterized by a growing obsession to increase muscular volume”.
Dr. Pope argues that the psychological profile of the bigorexic is an insecure and introverted person with problems with integration, someone who rejects his or her body and has low self-esteem. “An individual who can spend nearly a whole day at the gym, abandoning his social and work-related activities, plunging into an environment they consider more favorable”, explains the renowned physician.
When it comes to eating, those who suffer from this disease maintain an unbalanced diet rich in proteins and low in fats, focusing on foods that develop muscle mass such as egg whites, starch, pasta and red meats, among others (nutrition tips). In addition, to enhancing the effectiveness of their so-called “miracle diet”, bigorexics take laxatives, diuretics and vitamins purchased in markets and gyms without any medical control.
It is very common, among bigorexics, to use anabolic steroids and hormones—particularly drugs prescribed for children with growth problems—to increase their muscle mass. And, of course, they ingest other dangerous steroids acquired without prescription, which can cause terrible side effects like liver damage, cardiovascular problems, enlarged prostate, reduction of the testicles, impotence, acne or breast growth (gynecomastia).
All these problems multiply when the body is still developing, i.e. when the person is very young. According to Dr. Alexandra Vázquez, Professor of Social Psychology at Spain’s Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), “this addiction is difficult to diagnose because we are constantly bombarded with messages about the advantages of physical exercise and how important it is to have a wonderful body.”
A study conducted by a group of researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital, part of Harvard Medical School, concluded that 17.9 percent of 5,527 adolescent males surveyed were extremely concerned about their weight and physical condition (ideal physical shape). The study, published in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics, certifies that children tend to be more interested in having big muscles than in being healthy. Similarly, the study shows that men concerned with their muscle size and using supplements—such as growth hormones or steroids—are twice as prone to excessive drinking and are more likely to start using drugs.
We live in a world where image is paramount. In recent years, the messages from the advertising industry are increasingly affecting our youth. The lack of self-esteem is enhanced by the false concept that only a perfect body is attractive and ensures success.
If to all this we add a personality that is still forming, without the capacity for self-criticism and with vital expectations where the most important thing is to be socially accepted, the psychological problems that result can be as real and damaging as the effects of bigorexia.
In his recent study, Dr. Carlos Fanjul, Professor at Jaime I University in Castellón de la Plana, Spain, concludes: “To compare oneself with high ideals can be devastating. It is not surprising that more than 20 percent of young people admit having used drugs to increase their muscle mass. The urgency for self-esteem and social recognition leads them to take shortcuts to get the perfect body”. ■