Dying to be big

11 Mins read

The media stereotypes would have us believe that worrying about your appearance has traditionally been the preserve of the fairer sex.

Cultural customs state that the man will be ready to go out in 10 minutes, whilst the woman will barricade herself in the bathroom for an hour.

As society has changed, so too have gender norms and it’s now not uncommon to see men putting as much effort, and worry, into their physical appearance as women.

It’s difficult to tell where the idea of taking care of your appearance ends and serious problems begin, although BDD (Body Dysmorphic Disorder), an anxiety disorder relating to overly critical thoughts about ones looks that can seriously impact their day to day life, is thought to affect up to 1 in 50 people.

Every year, 1 in 330 people diagnosed with BDD commit suicide.

According to Rob Wilson of the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, around 10% of men training at the gym may have muscle dysmorphia, where men are obsessed with packing on muscle.

It’s basically anorexia in reverse, hence the colloquial term ‘bigorexia’; with the number of gym memberships reaching eight million last year, that’s potentially a lot of people.


Having worked at a gym for over three years, I have witnessed first-hand the growth in young men aged 18-30 walking through the door.

Our sales of protein products have gone through the roof, which reflects a wider trend. Last year, the ONS (Office of National Statistics) added protein shakes into their basket of goods and services used to calculate consumer price inflation.

Whilst sales of protein products and supplements skyrocket, so too do the products you won’t see in the vending machine.

The Home Office Crime Survey for England & Wales 2014 states that 60,000 people in the UK used anabolic steroids last year, although this is widely considered to be a massive underestimation.

Whilst steroids are legal for personal use, it is illegal to sell or distribute, with dealers facing up to 14 years in prison under current drug laws.

Many gym chains have recently installed sharps bins for what they describe as the safe disposal of items such as razors, although clearly the unspoken idea is for the disposal of needles used for steroid injection.

Indeed, needle exchanges across the country are now reporting dealing with far more steroid users than heroin users, lots of whom are younger, including below 18.


This toxic cocktail of concern over body image leading to muscle dysmorphia and the abuse of steroids is becoming a significant health concern.

Tomos Parsons is the current Miami Pro Under 75kg Fitness Model European Champion, currently preparing for his next competition, Pure Elite Fitness in Margate in April, where he will be aiming to get his second Pro-Card in the Male Fitness Model division.

Tomos winning the Miami Pro Fitness Model Under 75kg last year [© Matt Marsh].

Tomos winning the Miami Pro Fitness Model Under 75kg last year [© Matt Marsh].

“I don’t believe that there has been an increased pressure on men to ‘look good’, however I think that media has altered what people believe defines as ‘looking good’.

“There has always been a typical mould in the media for men to look a certain way, however recently I think that has shifted more towards the physical, perhaps from actors and sport stars becoming more physically dominant.

“I think this is a generally positive thing though, as being in shape is now seen as more ‘fashionable’ or desirable, it’s on more people’s minds and this may mean more people are looking out for their health. I think self-criticism is all about your mind set, it can be great motivation for some people and for others it can be their downfall.”

This isn’t a view that’s completely shared by Lynn Crilly, a counsellor, private therapist and published author; as the parent of a child who suffered from Anorexia Nervosa and OCD, the issue of body image is close to Lynn’s heart.

“I do feel that social media has a lot to answer for, for example you see these bodybuilding videos online and they’ll compare themselves to these professionals who are pumped full of steroids. When they look at themselves compared to them, they will feel they’ve peaked naturally.”

One person who felt he had peaked naturally was Joe, who, at 24, has been taking steroids on and off for two years.

He isn’t a competitive bodybuilder, but goes to the gym five or six times a week. He casually flicks through Tinder as we sit on his sofa, intermittently flicking the phone towards me with a knowing grin, leading to a half-joking question about where the correlation between Tinder and beginning to take steroids began.

“Show me a young lad who didn’t start going to the gym to impress girls and I’ll show you a liar,” he states confidently. When pressed on his use of steroids, he brought them from a cabinet in a small white vial covered in unintelligible red Chinese writing.

Joe's collection of supplements [Sam Skinner].

Joe’s collection of supplements [Sam Skinner].

“There’s a lot of misinformation around gear, the fact is its safer than smoking and drinking, which everyone my age does on the weekend anyways. I don’t like drinking; I don’t like not feeling in control of myself. If you know what you’re doing, it’s not dangerous. Its kids who don’t know how to cycle [use steroids intermittently, in cycles] properly that end up hurting themselves.”

This was an unconventional viewpoint, yet to be expected from a user, and one that is different to that of avowed non-steroid user Tomos.

“I think that there is a big misconception surrounding steroids and bodybuilding. While it may be perceived as more commonly used than in other sports, this is starting to seem untrue as there seems to be another doping scandal whatever sporting page you look at, from tennis to running.

“I think that people look at the top level of bodybuilding and the guys who are over 250lbs on stage and tar everybody with that same brush. The fact that steroids are often used to enhance muscle growth doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody who gains success in the industry uses them.

“People are quick to jump to this accusation without considering the fact that these men will be taking in double or sometimes more calories than the average gym user, for long periods of time (10 years or more). They are bound to grow! I am not naïve enough to think that it isn’t prevalent in the industry as a whole, but you would be surprised at how many organisations use drug testing. Having competed in a lightweight division I haven’t experienced any clashes with people I think take these drugs, however you can never tell for sure.”

So how do the drugs work? Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS), are synthetic versions of testosterone, the male hormone released naturally into the body when boys hit puberty and which causes a growth spurt, increased muscle mass, and greater sex drive.

Steroids work by helping the body repair the damage that weight-lifting naturally causes. They’re typically injected into the muscle that users want to grow.

When gym-users lift progressively heavier weights over a few months, they create small tears in their muscle fibres, which the body repairs naturally, using protein from your diet.

It then adds bigger cells to build a stronger fibre in a process known as muscular hypertrophy, which makes muscles bigger and stronger. Natural testosterone is the body’s main ingredient for this process, but anabolic steroids speed it up.


Steroids can be inhaled or taken in pill form, although they are primarily injected. Steroid use can also lead to a variety of mental and physical problems, including depression, mood swings, diabetes, carpal tunnel syndrome, and acne to name but a few.

Inexperienced syringe users are also susceptible to cutting themselves, blood clots and nerve paralysis, as well as gigantism, the disproportionate growth of body parts.

A recent study also discovered that 46 per cent of steroid users had also used cocaine in the previous year. Users are also more likely to use other image-enhancing drugs, such as injected Melanotan for a permanently tanned look, and Viagra.

Throughout our conversations with various gym goers about their goals, ‘putting on [muscle] mass’ often tends to come up.

After Tomos’ comments on the growth of physical dominance in the media, it was interesting to see whether he felt the growth of ‘mass’ as a body ideal was leading to unhealthy attitudes amongst gym goers.

“I think that the rise of mass isn’t the problem, as now there is something for everyone. For those guys who want to get as big as possible this category serves as great motivation, for the guys who are drawn towards a more ‘classic bodybuilding’ look there are the Men’s Physique/ Fitness Model categories,” Tomos said.

“I believe the main problem is the way these people are branded, the typical famous physique model will only ever post the best shots, the ones that make them look at their absolute best, however if you get a chance to meet these ‘idols’ at events like the Body Power Fitness Expo you see that these aren’t so unrealistic and that if you worked hard enough, its within your reach.”


We asked Lynn for her thoughts on whether the rise of mass was contributing to unhealthy expectations of body image.

“Yes, the videos should all have disclaimers; this should extend to all the media. Magazines such as Men’s Health should clearly state where they have photo-shopped pictures and also have disclaimers. Some personal trainers have a lot to answer for. They shouldn’t be pushing protein shakes and supplements to younger men, some of whom aren’t much older than 18, who don’t need them. [In terms of mass] Young men at the gym will always be comparing themselves to the next guy, and there’s always someone bigger than you.”

Whilst not everyone may be able to go to these Expos, it is important to bear Tomos’ assertion here in mind, as the idea of tempering your expectations was the closest in overlapping agreement between these two otherwise regimentally opposed viewpoints.

Clearly, the gulf in opinion between what constitutes personal responsibility, as well as collective responsibility for public health (through media control), is the most contentious point at issue here.

Approaching the issue through health warnings on relevant media may temper the problem to a degree. However, the concern remains that if one is consuming this media already, the messages effectiveness is nullified.

So what can be done to tackle the problem at a grassroots level before these young men fall into this cycle of obsessive and abusive behaviour?


Damian Wood, is a personal trainer who has recently set up a gym with a unique philosophy.

“Something that’s not touched upon in gyms is the psychology, we really want to know what their goals are, why are they here, what do you want to achieve. What are the reasons behind it? It’s difficult because you want to give the client what they want but at the same time there is a duty of care, you need to know when to step in,” he told Artefact.

“Within a gym environment, instructors aren’t qualified to do that. I come from a psychology background, so my knowledge comes from experience, and I can pick up on it very quickly. Personal trainers have to take much more of a duty of care towards their customers. The whole point of exercise is to feel healthy, they need to ascertain whether they are in a good place or they’re doing it for another reason, are they deflecting from something else.”

Damian at his gym in Surrey [Sam Skinner].

Damian at his gym in Surrey [Sam Skinner].

“The main thing is to open up a line of communication, and be completely open and honest with them, a lot of trainers do struggle with that.

“That’s not taught in education for personal trainers. Then they feel scared, because they haven’t been trained properly. They can teach you how to screen, but they don’t touch on psychology.

“These courses that cost up to £3,000 don’t give you all the skills you need. That’s really where the industry falls down I think, in not being able to offer that service. One thing I do work on with my apprentices is being able to communicate, to find the signs for when someone is training for the wrong reasons.”

This raised issues about how the psychological side of training had been shut out of physical education, and what trainers like Damian are doing to stop it manifesting at a later stage.

He explained that he was in the process of setting up a partnership with a local school to do that: “I’ve been in the industry 15 years now, and I know just going through it myself that as a youngster you are influenced by the media a lot.

“What you see in these magazines is if you take this protein powder you’re going to have a six pack, that’s the kind of education that you get at that age. There’s not enough education in school to explain a healthy balanced lifestyle.

“Predominantly, the only children that get any education regarding nutrition are those doing P.E. What about the rest of the classes? This is where I think there’s a mass demand, and the chance for schools to begin implementing workshops, maybe even adding it into the curriculum. This would come under key life skills and personal development.”


This demonstrates a lack of comprehensive health and nutrition schooling for all students; many would say it’s what schools should be here for.

If the state can mandate much of what is on the curriculum, they also hold a moral responsibility to properly explain how to live a healthy and happy life, giving children the opportunity to develop positive habits that benefit both them and society as a whole.

It raises the question of whether Joe would have turned out the way he did if Damian’s vision had been realised whilst he was still at school. As it was, Joe was open in admitting that he began using steroids when he ‘plateaued’, known as reaching what he felt was his physical limit naturally.

He said that this is a common reason for many who begin using. We asked Tomos what advice he would give someone like Joe two years ago, before he took the plunge.

“When hitting a plateau my advice would be to evaluate what you’re doing and change it up. It sounds simple, but there are so many people who think ‘If I just keep doing it, change will come.”

Everyone’s body is different and that ‘wonder blog’ you read online may not do a thing for you. So the advice is: Find out what does, and just as important what doesn’t work for you.

It seems that the majority of casual gym users who turn to “unreliable sources” to boost their results are really overlooking the basics needed for success.



Altering your training stimulus to provide progressive progress, or changing up your nutrition to see results is frequently overlooked, mostly due to a fundamental misunderstanding of nutrition.

People want to be ripped year round while building large amounts of muscle, so will eat a tonne of protein without consuming other essential nutrients needed to build muscle.

Then supplementing other substances to compensate this when they don’t see results. It’s repeated so often but nutrition really is key to progress in the gym.

It’s recommended that anybody who is considering using unnatural methods to evaluate their nutrition and training methods before considering anything else.

Whilst it is unclear whether or not muscle dysmorphia is caused by a genetic or chemical imbalance in the brain, there is also debate that this may be more common in people who were bullied or abused as a child, as well as those with existing insecurities.

Joe seemed confident that he didn’t have muscle dysmorphia or was addicted to steroids, although denial is obviously the first line of defence for any addict.

The disease is difficult in its difference to other, more flagrantly alarming disorders. It can appear relatively shiny and sexy in comparison, characterized by bravado and easy to deflect through, for example, accusations of jealousy.

We asked Lynn how to approach the issue from a more personal perspective, asking if she felt that Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) could help with treatment for those with a serious problem, as it does with anorexia;

“It is possible, although the most important thing is that they are willing to get help.”

But in the end, it comes down to the ability of many of these men to admit they have a problem, to which Lynn simply says:

“Some people are just waiting to be asked if they are OK.”


Many thanks to:


Featured image by Sam Skinner

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