illustration of a mannequin surrounded by gym equipment and junk food
Illustration: Juta
Life

'Bigorexia' Is the Body Dysmorphia Men Can't Talk About

Even the most seemingly healthy personal goals can often hide unhealthy or unrealistic aesthetic aspirations.
Giorgia Cannarella
Bologna, IT
Juta
illustrated by Juta
December 7, 2020, 8:45am

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

One of the best articles about diet culture that I’ve ever read is by the American actor Matthew McGorry, best known for his role as a prison officer in Orange Is the New Black

In the piece, published on Medium, McGorry opened up about his own history of disordered eating, saying that after he gained some weight he was told he wouldn’t nab leading roles. “For so long, I thought ‘chubby’ was the worst thing I could be. Men are ‘supposed’ to be tough, strong and rugged,” he wrote.

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McGorry's story reminds us that eating disorders don’t just affect women.

“In Italy, only 5 to 10 percent of people with anorexia – and 10 percent of people with bulimia – are men,” says dietician Viviana Valtucci. In North America, the statistics are similar. “But there’s no difference between genders when it comes to binge eating. And then there's bigorexia, an obsession with having a muscular body, which isn’t a classified disease but mainly affects men."

Like anorexia, bigorexia is linked to body dysmorphia – a delusional obsession with perceived “flaws” in your own body shape. While anorexia is the constant push to be thin, bigorexia (or muscle dysmorphia) can be summarised as an obsessive concern about not being muscular and/or lean enough. According to the NHS, body dysmorphia can lead to depression, self harm and suicide.

Fitness obsession is a fundamental part of diet and wellness culture, where even the most seemingly-healthy personal goals can often hide unhealthy or unrealistic aesthetic aspirations – for example, reaching a particular body fat percentage. For men trying to carve and sculpt themselves into idealised shapes, diets like the paleo or keto are often seen as more “manly” for their (ridiculous) caveman associations, despite being unsustainable or even harmful in the long run – particularly when combined with anabolic steroids. 

“Toxic masculinity creates unattainable body ideals,” says Giuseppe Magistrale from the Centro Pugliese per i Disturbi Alimentari (Puglian Centre for Eating Disorders), drawing from experience with his own personal battle.

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Magistrale described his experience of the bodybuilding and powerlifting communities as "a world that gave me a great feeling of power and shelter, where I divided everything into ‘right body’ versus ‘wrong body’. We were obsessed with weight and fat percentages. I remember a guy once wrote on a fitness forum, ‘I’m not sure I want to ask that girl out until my arm has reached 44 centimetres.’ Everything revolved around the body.”

While his experience will sound extreme to some, Magistrale says there are earlier warning signs men can watch out for. “I’d be hearing alarm bells if a commitment to changing my body starts taking up all of my time, or if I start neglecting relationships and develop compulsive behaviour,” he explains. “The problem isn’t fitness itself, the problem is thinking that fitness is the solution to all problems. Trying to overcome a shame for my body that will actually never go away.”

Then there’s the fact that men find it hard to ask for help. “Usually, if they go to therapy, it’s for other issues, and the obsession with fitness emerges later,” says Magistrale. Valtucci agrees: “Women today have more role models on the journey to body acceptance, whereas men don’t. And they end up suffering in silence. Calls for help often come from worried mothers and girlfriends.”

If, up until a couple of years ago, my feed was full of #fitspo content, constantly reminding me that I should be burning off that biscuit I just ate by torturing myself in the gym, now it’s filled with a different kind of inspirational content: eating disorder recovery, anti-fatphobia and intersectional feminism. Almost all of this content is produced by women. 

One of the very few men doing this kind of thing is Riccardo Onorato, AKA Guy Overboard. After starting a men’s fashion blog in 2012, he met female bloggers who were body positivity activists and realised their experiences weren’t so different from his own, including the struggle to find clothing in his size. He decided to talk about it, and push other guys to open up about their relationship with food, their body and their emotions. “I think it's important I make my male voice heard and show that you can be vulnerable, have doubts about your body or yourself, and still be a man,” he says.

According to Onorato, sexual orientation also plays a part in this problematic relationship with “manliness”. He thinks gay men can find it even harder to relinquish the status that comes with achieving the so-called perfect masculine body. “We live in a world that is still too homophobic for them to feel free and secure as men,” he says – and this only increases body image disorders and unhealthy eating behaviours in gay men. And gay men are overrepresented in the world of eating disorders. While only 5% of the total male population are thought to be gay, 42 percent of men with binge-eating disorder identify as gay, according to the American National Eating Disorder Association.

Having also experienced eating disorders, there’s no doubt in my mind that the female body is more oppressed by our society: we’re objectified, hyper-sexualised and told our beauty is our only resource. Women are constantly being asked to restrict themselves, optimise and physically take up less space.

But we’re all victims of diet culture, regardless of our gender. “The fight against diet culture is about a system of privilege and discrimination that we must dismantle,” says Riccardo Onorato. “The health and fitness stories men tell themselves come from a set of beliefs that elevate certain bodies over others. It’s oppressive for everyone who falls short of the cultural ideal.”

Correction: This piece has been updated to clarify the statistical relationship between gay men and binge-eating disorder.