In general, a body dysmorphic disorder is characterized by the perception of one or more defects or flaws in one's physical appearance that are not observable or appear insignificant to others. In addition, it is characterized by repetitive behaviours (e.g., looking in the mirror repeatedly, taking excessive care of one's physical appearance) or mental acts (e.g., comparing one's own appearance with another person) in response to excessive appearance concerns.
In turn, vigorexy or muscular dysmorphia is classified by the American Psychiatric Association as type of body dysmorphic disorder, characterized by an obsession with having a muscular body, together with a distorted perception of self-image. These factors cause the person to feel that, although thin and muscular, they are not sufficiently defined, muscular or strong, and to see themselves as weaker and thinner than they actually are. Those who suffer from this disorder have repetitive and persistent thoughts about the need to exercise in order to increase muscle mass, and an obsession with achieving the "perfect body". For this reason, vigorexy is also called Adonis Syndrome, a reference to the Greek god of beauty.
Finally, vigorexy can also be called reverse anorexia nervosa – if, on the one hand, in anorexia nervosa a thin person sees themselves as overweight, on the other hand, in vigorexy a well-defined muscled person sees themselves as thin and weak.
In general, this disorder has a higher incidence in males, between the ages of 18 and 25.
Usually, most people with this disorder tend to exercise excessively, eat a diet excessively focused on protein intake, adopt repetitive habits such as looking at themselves often in the mirror, and sometimes resort to the use of substances, such as anabolic steroids, to achieve their body-related goals.
All of the mentioned rituals cause clinically significant psychological distress and high interference with the individual's daily routines. For example, individuals suffering from vigorexy spend many hours of their day engaging in physical activity, and prevent themselves of family interaction and social life. Their professional functioning can also be compromised. In addition, they tend to devalue symptoms of fatigue or tiredness, and end up suffering from generalized muscle weakness, muscle injuries, bone and articulation problems, extreme tiredness, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating. Finally, they also tend to experience higher levels of anxious and depressive symptomatology.
Signs to look out for:
Excessive preoccupation, or obsession with the gym and/or compulsive exercise; dissatisfaction with the body; disturbed eating behaviour and substance use, such as anabolic steroids.
What causes vigorexy?
Vigorexy does not have a specific known origin. It may be related to a number of factors, such as previous experiences leading to overvaluation of physical appearance; brain chemical imbalance or genetic alteration; more obsessive and perfectionist personality traits; need for approval from others; low self-esteem. In addition, the standard of beauty imposed by modern societies, the excessive exposure to the body through the media, particularly on social media, may also contribute, although indirectly, to the development of this type of disorder, by encouraging, especially in the young people, the unreachable search for a "perfect body".
How to intervene in vigorexy?
Considering the negative impact of vigorexy on the physical and mental health of the individual, it requires a multidisciplinary intervention, which should ideally involve a medical, psychological, nutritional and physical (re)education evaluation and monitoring, in order to promote a healthier lifestyle and behaviours for those who suffer from this disorder. According to the scientific literature, cognitive-behavioural therapy has shown promising results in the treatment of vigorexy.
If you identify in yourself, or in someone close to you, any signs for the development of vigorexy, seek specialized help or encourage the seek for help.
American Psychological Association (2014). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA.
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Pope, H. G., Pope, H., Phillips, K. A., & Olivardia, R. (2000). The Adonis complex: The secret crisis of male body obsession. Simon and Schuster.
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