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bigorexia

noun [uncountable]

a mental illness in which a person feels physically inadequate and continually wants to improve body muscle

bigorexic

noun [countable] adjective

'London: Experts have warned that many men who are unhappy with their bodies are resorting to unsafe dietary and exercise habits and risking suffering from bigorexia disorder.'

Zee News 18th November 2013

'Muscle-bound bigorexics hanker to be even bigger … Suresh has the kind of superbly sculpted physique that most men would happily kill for. But the body-builder himself is dissatisfied as he punishes himself hour after hour in the gym …'

Times of India 9th September 2001

It's an all too familiar concept in the 21st century – the glossy media images of beautiful svelte females which engender both envy and aspiration in the woman on the street, sometimes with rather serious consequences for the health of young, impressionable females. However, preoccupation with the body beautiful can be just as damaging for men as it sometimes is for women. In a condition dubbed bigorexia, the typically male ideal of a toned muscular body becomes a dangerous obsession.

since anorexia sufferers are usually female, bigorexia is sometimes thought of as the male equivalent of the condition

The word bigorexia is a colloquial take on the term muscle dysmorphia, which describes a mental disorder in which a person becomes obsessed with the idea that they are not sufficiently muscular. Sufferers of bigorexia usually have far more muscle than average, but mistakenly perceive themselves as skinny or too small. They adopt a strict diet and would be terrified at the prospect of missing a session at the gym, sometimes even continuing their exercise regime when injured. Bigorexia is largely confined to men and often associated with bodybuilders. It is sometimes described as the reverse of anorexia, a condition in which someone stops eating because of the delusional idea that they are overweight. Since anorexia sufferers are usually female, bigorexia is sometimes thought of as the male equivalent of the condition.

Research suggests that bigorexia has been on the rise over the last thirty years, with the estimated number of men affected now triple the amount it was back in the 1970s and 1980s. Analogous to the situation with female role-models, the increase in cases is often attributed to the influence of popular media and the images of hyper-developed, muscular action heroes on film and TV.

Background – bigorexia

The word bigorexia has been around since the late 1990s, emerging when the condition of muscle dysmorphia was formally recognized by the medical profession in 1997. Another informal equivalent is the expression Adonis complex, from the use of Adonis as a term for an extremely handsome young man, which is based on the beautiful youth of the same name in Greek mythology.

Bigorexia of course takes inspiration from the term anorexia, mirroring its derivational pattern with bigorexic (c.f. anorexic), which can be used as both a countable noun and adjective to describe sufferers of the disorder. The combining form -orexia is based on the Greek word orexis meaning 'appetite'. Strictly speaking, therefore, it could be argued that its use in bigorexia is inappropriate because the word literally means 'big appetite'. In popular culture, however, productive use of the suffix -orexia has led to its independent interpretation as a description of 'a mental disorder', hence bigorexia is the mental disorder of wanting to be 'big' (= well-developed). Other similar examples of the suffix's creative use in recent years include orthorexia (an obsession with eating healthy foods), drunkorexia (restricting food intake so that alcohol can be consumed without gaining weight), tanorexia (an obsession with getting and maintaining tanned skin) and bleachorexia (an obsession with dental hygiene and having teeth whitened).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 21st January 2014.

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