Keep an Eye on Muscle-Obsessed Male Patients: 'Relatively New Phenomenon'

By Splete, Heidi | Clinical Psychiatry News, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Keep an Eye on Muscle-Obsessed Male Patients: 'Relatively New Phenomenon'


Splete, Heidi, Clinical Psychiatry News


The male physique has achieved objectification status, and many men are fretting about their pecs and delts the way many women obsess about their butts and thighs.

Several recent studies highlight two aspects of the male body image problem: the psychological and the pharmacologic.

The term "muscle dysmorphia" refers to individuals, usually men, who pathologically believe that they have small musculature, when in fact they are quite toned. This is similar to the body dysmorphia in women who see themselves as fat despite being very thin. A study published last year attempted to describe muscle dysmorphia as a distinct syndrome (Br. J. Sports Med. 36[3]:375-77, 2002).

The researchers recruited 24 male weight lifters who showed signs of muscle dysmorphia and compared their responses to the Multidimensional Body-Self Relations Questionnaire (MBSRQ) to 30 male weight lifters who did not show these symptoms.

Telephone screening placed the men in either the muscle dysmorphia group or the control group. Based on their responses to the MBSRQ, the men who were characterized with muscle dysmorphia were significantly less satisfied with the appearance of their lower torsos, muscle tone, and weight. In addition, the muscle dysmorphia group was significantly more preoccupied about becoming overweight than the control group.

Jennifer Carter, Ph.D., a researcher at Ohio State University, Columbus, conducted a study on muscle dysmorphia in college athletes and presented the results at a 2003 meeting of the American Psychological Association.

"I did the research with both female and male student athletes, and the prevalence rates of full-blown eating disorders were very low. Because our surveys weren't anonymous, there's a strong likelihood of underreporting" among student athletes, she said.

In her pilot study, which looked at college athletes at Ohio State University, Dr. Carter found that 1.1% of 467 male athletes surveyed in 2002 met criteria for muscle dysmorphia, on the basis of a seven-question assessment inspired by the 2000 book "The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession." Among these male athletes, 4% said they frequently gave up activities because of workout schedule, 5% avoided situations where they would expose their bodies, and 4% were so preoccupied with the inadequacy of their body size that they were significantly distressed.

In addition, 9.3% of the male athletes showed signs of subclinical eating disorders or body image problems, including the use of laxatives, vomiting, or fasting. Dr. Carter pointed out that as a pilot study, her results have not been validated. "That's the next step," she said.

Also, she noted, small percentages of the athletes (17% of men and 14% of women) were satisfied with their current weights. Most wanted to either lose or gain weight--women tended to want to lose, while men tended to want to gain. "You'd think that this fit population would be more satisfied with their bodies, but they are always looking to change something. And there's no conclusive research showing that changing your body weight is going to significantly change your performance."

"One point that was made in "The Adonis Complex" is that men are more at risk because women have been exposed to these unrealistic body images for years, and they've learned to fight back and to question the reality. …

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