Muscle Dysmorphia (MD) describes a condition characterised by a misconstrued body image in individuals interpret their body size as both small and weak even though they may look normal or even be highly muscular. Those experiencing the condition typically strive for maximum fat loss and maximum muscular build. MD can have potentially negative effects on thought processes including depressive states, suicidal thoughts, and in extreme cases, suicide attempts. These negative psychological states have also been linked with concurrent use of Appearance and Performance Enhancing Drugs (APED) including Anabolic Androgenic Steroids (AAS).
MD was originally categorised in 1993 by Dr. H.G. Pope and colleagues (in the journal Comprehensive Psychiatry) as Reverse Anorexia Nervosa, due to characteristic symptoms in relation to body size. It has been considered to be part of the spectrum of Body Dysmorphic Disorders (BDD) referring to a range of conditions that tap into issues surrounding body image and eating behaviours. Consequently, there is a lack of consensus amongst researchers whether MD is a form of BDD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or a type of eating disorder. Earlier this year, Andy Foster, Dr. Gillian Shorter and I published a paper in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions about the ‘Addiction to Body Image’ model, and arguing that MD could perhaps be conceptualized as an addiction.
Our ‘Addiction to Body Image’ (ABI) model attempts to provide an operational definition and to introduce a standard assessment across the research area. The ABI model uses my addiction components model (outlined is a previous blog) as the framework in which to define muscle dysmorphia as an addiction. For the purposes of our paper, body image was defined using Sarah Grogan’s definition (from her 2008 book Body image: Understanding body dissatisfaction in men, women, and children) who said it was a person’s “perceptions, thoughts and feelings about his or her body”. We argued that the addictive activity in MD is the maintaining of body image via a number of different activities such as bodybuilding, exercise, eating certain foods, taking specific drugs (e.g., anabolic steroids), shopping for certain foods, food supplements, and/or physical exercise accessories, etc.).
In the ABI model, the perception of the positive effects on the self-body image is accounted for as a critical aspect of the MD condition. The maintenance behaviours of those with ABI may include healthy changes to diet or increases in exercise. However, such behaviours can hide or mislead those with ABI away from the negative thought processes that are driving their addiction. It is in the cognitive dysfunction of MD where we believe there is a pathological issue, and why the field has encountered problems with the criteria for the condition. The attempt to explain MD in the same manner as other BDDs may not be adequate due to the cognitive dysfunction occurring in the context of the potentially positive physical effects via improvements in shape, tone, and/or health of the body.
We also argued that there is a difference in the cognitive dysfunction with a misconstrued self-body image compared to other BDDs. The cognitive dysfunction causes the individual with MD to have a misconstrued view of their own body image, and the person believes they are small and puny. This negative mindset has the potential to cause depression and other disorders, and may facilitate the addiction. Unlike other conceptualizations of MD in the BDD literature, we would argue that the agent of the addiction is the perceived body image that is maintained by engaging in secondary behaviours such as specific types of physical activity and food. The most important thing in the life of someone with MD is how their body looks (i.e., their body image). The behaviours that the person with MD engages in (such as excessive exercise or disordered eating) are merely the vehicles by which their addiction (i.e., their perceived body image) is maintained.
Based on empirical evidence to date, we proposed that Muscle Dysmorphia could be re-classed as an addiction due to the individual continuing to engage in maintenance behaviours that cause long-term psychological damage. More research is needed to explore the possibilities of MD as an addiction, and how this particular addiction is linked to substance use and/or other comorbid health conditions. Controversy about the conceptual measurement of the condition, has led to a number of different scales adapted from different criteria that may not fully measure the experience of MD.
However, a group of questions that might test the applicability of the ABI approach to measuring and conceptualising MD have not been asked. Questionnaires such as the Exercise Addiction Inventory and the Bergen Work Addiction Scale (two scales that I co-developed) could be adapted to fit MD characteristics. Adequate conceptualisation is key to explore the clinically relevant condition. This new ABI approach may also have implications for diagnostic systems around similar conditions such as other BDDs or eating disorders.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Additional input: Andy Foster and Dr. Gillian Shorter
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