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Why some bodybuilders feel they are too small
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Why some bodybuilders feel they are too small

A growing number of people believe their bodies are not big or muscular enough — even if the opposite is true
muscle dysmorphia
Representational image | Illustration by Syalima Das

S. Ravi Kumar is stretching on the sidelines of a basketball court in Bengaluru when he notices a young man’s calf muscles at a distance. “I wish I had those calf genetics,” he says, forgetting – for a moment – that his calves are sculpted to perfection.

When this is brought to his notice, he laughs it off, saying, “I had to work very hard to get them (calves) to look this way. Some people don’t. It’s annoying.”  

In his eyes, he was never muscular enough, big enough, strong enough, lean enough, able enough… “That’s why I stopped,” he says.

Kumar decided to become a bodybuilder around a decade ago. He was a professional basketball player through his teens, but what started as a routine to get stronger for a sport turned into a game.

Muscle dysmorphia, also known as ‘bigorexia’ or ‘reverse anorexia’, is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder where an individual is “preoccupied with the idea that his or her body build is too small or insufficiently muscular”, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It is often associated with the use of anabolic steroids.  

Frenzied life 

Studies show that those with muscle dysmorphia tend to have high anxiety levels when their body is exposed, besides obsessive-compulsive behaviours towards workout routines and diet, and low self-esteem. 

I was depressed because I had given up so much of my life for it, and I was never happy,” says Kumar, who works in an acquisition team in a software company. “I was constantly flexing my muscles, assuming that this would help them get bigger.” 

For years, Kumar traded his social life for a few hours at the gym each day. His meat diet caused friction within his vegetarian family. In the lead-up to competitions, he would live on less than 500 millilitres of water daily as “Dehydration helps the muscles to pop out more.”

Initially, all Kumar wanted was to build an aesthetic body. This was easy enough when he was younger, but as his metabolism slowed, his training became frenetic.

New obsession 

With time, heartbreaks and society-fuelled insecurities prompted him to push the boundaries and enter bodybuilding competitions. He rarely won, but he enjoyed his clique. Most of them lived similar lives. 

They’d discuss calories, not movies or music. They spoke human musculature as if it was their native language. They constructed a narrative where social interactions were pointless. And they all berated ‘fat’ by plucking at each other’s skin. 

Men with muscle dysmorphia rarely seek treatment because most do not realise that the condition exists. It does not help that they receive positive reinforcement from other gym-goers. 

Body-shamed 

“With protein supplements and a restrictive diet, you sometimes have bloating,” Kumar says. He felt shame when people asked him ‘what the point of working out so much was if he had a paunch?’.

Kumar’s anxiety also extended to going on stage. “Outside of that space, I would never take off my T-shirt. I was constantly ashamed,” adding that he could not get into romantic relationships because of this. 

A male crisis 

Shame, research shows, is one of the biggest factors in instigating muscle dysmorphia as it blends it into the narrative of the ‘masculine crisis’ – where men perceive fewer opportunities to assert their masculinity and turn to having a muscular physique instead.

Bernard Dsouza, who runs Academy of Strength, a gym in Bengaluru, says he’s noticed a significant rise in muscle dysmorphia among his clients since Covid-19. 

I was going through it too early in my career,” says Dsouza, who was fixated on Bruce Lee. He says there’s still some pressure to look a certain way among his clients, but he’s largely managed to overcome it, and in turn deter some of his clients from looking at their bodies with toxicity.

An OCD of sorts 

Muscle dysmorphia is often considered a subtype of body dysmorphic disorder where one can be overly critical of any aspect of their appearance. In brain scans of those who display body dysmorphic states, psychologists observed that they process visual input differently, similar to the readings of those with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I had to do things the same way every day,” reminisces Kumar. “I lashed out at my family as they didn’t want me to eat meat because of a festival. That’s when I knew something was wrong.”

Strong-willed comeback 

For six months, Kumar went nowhere near a gym. He reconnected with friends, spoke with his family, and tried therapy but found it “not so useful”. Instead, he attended weddings and birthday parties, and ate things he had avoided for years “but in moderation”. He even returned to playing basketball. 

All for killer looks 

Young men are facing severe mental health issues because of body dysmorphia,” says Gangadhar Verma, a London-based therapist. He says people in the city are constantly comparing their bodies and their fashion to those around them. “Add social media to this mix and we’re spiralling.”

Bodybuilders – both professional and amateur – have it far worse. Their sense of identity is strongly tied to their sense of body, he says, recounting when a few of his clients stopped eating and drinking water for days to make their muscles stand out. One client even quit his job and marriage to spend more time at the gym.

“It’s a complex connection,” for which Verma employs cognitive behavioural therapy as a treatment. He says hasn’t had to treat many extreme cases in which medication was required. “That’s not to say that there aren’t any such cases”

Back at the basketball court, Ravi Kumar is once again stretching after a pick-up game, now without a T-shirt. While he’s still concerned about his body, it’s now about how it works and not how it looks. But that doesn’t mean he’s over the hurdle. The other young man’s calves are still in his eye line.

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