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More Muscles, More Problems: Social Media & Muscle Dysmorphia

Authored by Tej Ramachandrula

Art by Carina Garcia


When prompted with the phrase ‘Greek God,’ we inevitably envision a gleaming, muscular man with impossibly toned muscles, sculpted to perfection. In ancient times, these sculptures were revered as unattainable depictions of Gods; however, with the rise of fitness influencers on social media who have seemingly achieved these extraordinary physiques, it often becomes difficult to be satisfied with our appearances. 


Although this sentiment is understandable, the actual nature of the bodybuilding social media industry is more nuanced than is commonly known. The rise of fitness influencers on social media is a dynamic process that involves earning sponsorships, consistently creating content, and most of all, retaining audience engagement. A 2020 study examining 3000 Instagram posts depicting the male body found that, “Pictures of persons with higher muscularity and lower body fat received significantly more engagement compared to those with lower muscularity and higher body fat, p < 0.01.” [1] This finding reinforces the idea that media depicting muscularity is consumed to a greater extent than content that does not contain as much muscularity. The same study also found that posts with low body fat and high body muscularity averaged about 406 likes, whereas those with low body fat and medium body muscularity averaged about 306 likes. It is evident that content depicting a greater amount of muscle mass significantly outperforms content that depicts slightly less muscularity, suggesting that influencers with marginally more muscularity are bound to have more engagement. 


Aware of this user bias, fitness influencers are thus making themselves appear more muscular by any means necessary to increase engagement with their platform. One such strategy is taking photos of themselves in favorable lighting, such as in downlighting to make themselves appear bigger and make their muscles look more defined. Some have also employed the use of photo-editing applications like Lightroom and Facetune to enhance their natural physique with a simple stroke of a virtual paintbrush. Another creative technique that many influencers utilize is taking pictures while they have a “pump,” or transient hypertrophy, which describes an accumulation of fluids in the muscle after movement, making them appear larger [2]. 


The most harmful of these techniques used to increase, or feign the increase, of muscle mass is the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Besides the use of PEDs being incredibly dangerous to the user’s health, not being candid about PED use on social media can have detrimental impacts to the user’s audience. Deceiving one’s audience into believing that an enhanced physique is naturally attainable sets the stage for one’s followers to feel as if their appearances are inadequate and that they  are simply not working hard enough. This mentality can lead to a plethora of unhealthy behaviors like overtraining, extreme diet control, and excessive body monitoring practices, all of which are notable signs of muscular dysmorphia [3].


Muscle dysmorphia (MD), colloquially referred to as “bigorexia,” describes a body dysmorphic disorder characterized by an excessive preoccupation with the belief that one's body is too small, weak, or insufficiently muscular [3]. Muscle dysmorphia is often diagnosed by mental health professionals through a clinical evaluation. The diagnosis is made based on the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which guides the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders [4]. However, there are many barriers to diagnosing muscle dysmorphia that make it difficult to accurately estimate the number of people affected by the condition, the largest being the stigma around men’s mental health. To this end, many affected people do not seek treatment since they appear physically healthy even though their mental well-being is adversely affected.


Current research suggests that muscle dysmorphia disproportionately affects men, and is commonly observed in athletes — particularly wrestlers, football players, and bodybuilders [5]. However, the booming social media presence of the fitness and bodybuilding industries has the potential to increase susceptibility to muscle dysmorphia in impressionable teenagers and young adults. A 2015 study conducted on high school boys found that about 30 percent of adolescent boys reported attempts to gain weight [6]. This harmful behavior is especially dangerous among young people who are not fully physically developed, as they are susceptible to believing that overtraining and PED use can accelerate their growth.


Another study done at a university gym in Bordeaux found that of the 18.7% of students with muscle dysmorphia, there was a large correlation between “taking specific selfies of muscles and muscularity” and incidence of muscle dysmorphia [7]. They also found that pro-muscularity websites, fitness model comparisons, and gym mirror checking were linked to muscle dysmorphia, re-emphasizing how social media defines the symptoms of the condition. Moreover, it's important to consider that while these behaviors are associated with muscle dysmorphia, not everybody who engages in one or more of them has the condition. 


The most promising approach to mitigate the effects of muscle dysmorphia is to raise awareness of the editing and filtration that occurs on social media in order to avoid comparing ourselves to unrealistic standards. Another approach may be to incorporate perceptions of male body image into primary care screenings and health education programs. The ultimate goal is to create a paradigm shift in how we perceive our fitness goals — from striving to look like someone else to becoming the best version of ourselves.


References

1. Gültzow, T., Guidry, J. P. D., Schneider, F., & Hoving, C. (2020). Male Body Image Portrayals on Instagram. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 23(5), 281–289. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2019.0368

2. How to Grow Your Muscles With Just One Workout. (n.d.). World Gym. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://www.worldgym.com/blog/world-gym-blog/strength-training/how-to-get-the-best-muscle-pump-of-your-life/

3. Muscle Dysmorphia (Bigorexia): Signs, Causes, Statistics, and Treatment. (n.d.). The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/mental-health/body-dysmorphic-disorder/muscle-dysphoria/

4. Tod, D., Edwards, C., & Cranswick, I. (2016). Muscle dysmorphia: Current insights. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 9, 179–188. https://doi.org/10.2147/PRBM.S97404

5. Anderson, A. (n.d.). What Is Muscle Dysmorphia? WebMD. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-muscle-dysmorphia

6. Nagata, J. M., Bibbins-Domingo, K., Garber, A. K., Griffiths, S., Vittinghoff, E., & Murray, S. B. (2019). Boys, Bulk, and Body Ideals: Sex Differences in Weight-Gain Attempts Among Adolescents in the United States. Journal of Adolescent Health, 64(4), 450–453. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2018.09.002

7. Cuadrado, J., Reynaud, D., Legigan, C., O’Brien, K., & Michel, G. (2022). “Muscle Pics”, a new body-checking behavior in muscle dysmorphia? L’Encephale, S0013-7006(22)00004-5. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.encep.2021.11.004

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