University of Queensland study shows bodybuilders at greater risk of reverse anorexia

University of Queensland (UQ) anthropologist Mair Underwood has worked with bodybuilders for much of the past decade.

Initially focusing on body image and performance-enhancing drug use, Dr Underwood began to see issues with muscle dysmorphia emerge so often that she switched to investigating the disordered way of thinking.

Also called reverse anorexia or bigorexia, muscle dysmorphia is characterized by obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors and body image distortion, with sufferers seeing themselves as smaller than they are.

New research from UQ by Dr Underwood and Harvard University’s Roberto Olivardia found people lifting weights for aesthetic reasons had a greater risk of developing muscle dysmorphia.

The study is the first to include an insider’s perspective on the disorder.

Mair Underwood says all male bodybuilders described having the condition to some degree.,Supplied: Dr Mair Underwood,

Dr Underwood said muscle dysmorphia was first identified in bodybuilders, the people who were also most likely to suffer from it.

“Bodybuilding is a risk environment for mental health, and with so many young people building their bodies to look good, the dangers of developing muscle dysmorphia can’t be ignored,” she said.

The study found all men who immersed themselves in bodybuilding described themselves as having some degree of muscle dysmorphia and some sufferers attempted suicide.

While some women have been found to suffer from muscle dysmorphia, men were especially at risk.

The study found some bodybuilders try to manage the disorder by weighing and measuring themselves, taking photographs and asking others for feedback.

“Unfortunately, these management strategies are actually all symptoms of muscle dysmorphia, so it is vital people get guidance to develop strategies that will help them, instead of making the disorder worse,” Dr Underwood said.

Focus on body alarming

As part of her research, Dr Underwood set a goal to achieve defined abdominal muscles to help understand the study participants.

Woman showing abs in front of mirror with phone
Dr Underwood says her relationship with her body changed during her experiment.,Supplied: Dr Mair Underwood,

“I was counting macronutrients, I had a personal trainer, a nutritionist, and I got into the best shape of my life,” she said.

“But my hatred for the little bit of roundness on my stomach got out of proportion.”

Dr Underwood said her focus on her body and diet was “changing my relationship with my body and food”.

“And I’m a middle-aged woman, happily married; not a young man thinking your worth is based on how you look.”

Study to urge management of condition

Funded by a UQ early career researcher grant, the study was conducted over the past four years in online communities frequented by bodybuilders who use image and performance enhancing drugs.

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