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Muscle dysmorphia is fuelling a silent male mental health crisis

As social media and the lucrative, unregulated supplements industry continues to promote unrealistic beauty standards, more boys and young men today are becoming obsessed with body image and bulking up to the point of risking their overall wellbeing.

For as long as I’m able to remember, women have been the primary target of societal body critique.

Permeating almost every aspect of my day-to-day life, I’ve frequently faced immense pressure from my peers, mainstream media, and even my own conditioned mind to adopt destructive behaviours in order to change my appearance and ultimately cure my dissatisfaction towards it.

Why? Due to the ever-evolving yet persistently unrealistic beauty standards we’ve been collectively striving to achieve since, well, ever.

This, I’m aware, is all but common knowledge these days and one thing I’m sure of in my unabating quest to stop worrying about my self-image is that I’m not alone.

During the past 20 years, tides of public attitude have turned against ‘perfection,’ paving the way for a movement that actively celebrates us no matter our size.

However, despite how successful this community has been in encouraging my fellow body-conscious ladies to stop chasing an ideal we know deep down does not exist, it – albeit unintentionally – disregards that men are suffering just as much.

Not just for girls — Shorthand Social
Stats from the BBC

According to a 2017 study, male body image dissatisfaction has tripled in the last three decades, from 15 per cent of the Western population to 45 per cent.

This can be attributed to the fact that men are inundated with messaging to bulk up the moment they hit adolescence and is compounded by the digital world of #fitspo and #workout posts which promote bigorexia (a fixation with building muscle mass) and orthorexia (an addiction to clean eating).

It’s also what’s brought about a concerning rise in muscle dysmorphia (MD), which is defined as a preoccupation with one’s perceived lack of muscularity, despite having an average build, or in many cases, an extremely muscular body.

Resulting in repeated behaviours to try to fix the perceived flaw – such as abusing pre-workout supplements, steroids, excessive exercise, restrictive eating, and body checking – more boys and young men today are bulking up to the point of risking their overall wellbeing.

And because the condition is not classified as an eating disorder, nor are men seeking the necessary treatment, researchers are warning that MD is fuelling a ‘silent’ male mental health crisis.

Yet over half of British men show signs of body dysmorphia, a recent report found.

Not to mention that within the community of avid male gym-goers, a study published last year in the US found that all participants who immersed themselves in bodybuilding practices described themselves as having some degree of MD.

‘Though its generally under-recognised, boys have body ideals just like girls do,’ says Jason Nagata, a paediatrician at the University of California at San Francisco who specialises in adolescent eating disorders.

‘I think one of the big challenges is many of these boys and young men are engaging in these behaviours with the ultimate goal of increasing or maximizing their performance and appearance. But in the end, it can actually stunt their growth.’

As Nagata explains, bulking up, with the associated risky behaviours of skewed nutrient intake and excessive exercise, can be as dangerous as the drastic weight loss associated with more frequently discussed eating disorders such as anorexia.

For this reason, he stresses the importance of raising awareness about MD, so that boys and young men can foster an improved understanding of how to address it.

‘We’re still learning a lot about it, because in part, it just hasn’t been prioritised in research,’ he says. ‘There is this huge shift that needs to happen in terms of acknowledging that this is a significant concern for men.’