He looks fit but he sees fat; muscle dysmorphia is affecting upwards of one in 10 men

The condition has long been an issue associated with women and, until recently, neglected in men. It can lead to eating disorders, depression and health experts say it needs to be addressed.

Ramy Kandil, a certified personal trainer and digital marketer, is very self critical. “I’m proud, but never content,” says the 25-year-old Egyptian and Dubai resident. Pawan Singh / The National
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DUBAI // With his toned muscles, Ramy Kandil has the kind of body many men aspire to.

At 25, he has a mere 10 per cent body fat, weighs about 81 kilograms, stands 178 centimetres tall, and can deadlift 170kg. Yet Mr Kandil is still not happy with his appearance.

The Egyptian is one of many men who suffer from what psychologists call muscle dysmorphia, a condition where otherwise strong, fit and healthy men feel small, fat, skinny or lacking in masculinity.

In spite of working out six days a week, sometimes for up to two hours at a time, Mr Kandil, a certified personal trainer and digital marketer, is very self critical.

“I’m proud, but never content,” he says. “Being content promotes complacency. I always strive for better. I always criticise what I believe are problem areas in my body.”

He says his regimen affects his social life and, sometimes, his mental state. “I’ll be the first to admit that I get annoyed and panicky if I miss a session,” he says. “I prioritise my fitness lifestyle above many things. This isn’t to say I don’t make time for friends or social gatherings, I’m just more selective.”

For Mr Kandil, however, health comes first. “I used to be quite chubby,” he says of his life before the clean-eating, calorie-controlled way it is today. “Being who I am today is a constant endeavour to prove that I control my body, not the other way around.”

Body dysmorphia has long been an issue associated with women and, until recently, neglected in men. It can lead to eating disorders, depression and, in extreme cases, suicide.

Health professionals said the condition, also dubbed “bigorexia”, needs to be addressed.

Dubai sports psychologist Dr Caren Diehl says: “It is a huge topic that has been neglected. There are men who go to crazy lengths to build muscle mass, and deal with the emotional side effects of dysmorphia as well as the medical side-effects.

“Emotionally, these individuals suffer from very poor self-esteem, anxiety and obsession with their looks. There are also feelings of depression and hopelessness. They will put exercise before everything.”

She says that while it is widely held that one in 10 men suffers from muscle dysmorphia, the number is likely to be greater. “I feel it might actually be higher than that, especially with our culture today being more looks orientated than ever before – men having to look more muscular, women having to become lean as well – and, with all the stresses in life, it is a lot easier to suffer from such a mental illness,” Dr Diehl says.

“Many cases might be going undiagnosed because there is little awareness of the disorder.”

Ian Houghton, a doctor of naprapathy, a blend of physiotherapy and chiropractics, and also a sports-performance specialist in Dubai, agrees that there is a hidden population suffering from this condition.

“I believe that more than 10 per cent of young and middle-aged men are affected by this,” he says. “Men are equally as affected by social-media exposure to six packs and bulging biceps as women are by their ideal figure.

“More so, men are not affected by looking ‘too big’, like many women might be afraid of.

“Therefore, they might seek out performance-enhancing drugs more liberally.”

Marcus Smith, owner of Dubai’s Inner Fight gym, believes many men suffer from the condition but feel they cannot speak about it because it is taboo.

“It is a psychological disorder, but it is caused by people’s obsession to have a better physique. Is that, in itself, such a bad thing? Not really.

“So why are we not addressing it? Because it is not seen as macho,” he says.

mswan@thenational.ae