In Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder Samuel Wilson Fussell recounts the obsession he shared with his three roommates—Vinnie, Nimrod, and Bamm Bamm—to bulk-up, the bigger the better. In fact, no size no matter how big was big enough for they were aspiring to some supernatural state of monstrous proportions that they were deluded into thinking would erase their incurable sense of rage and inferiority. To reach this larger-than-life state they injected themselves with anabolic steroids, which resulted in various indignities—acne, baldness, bruising, hemorrhoids, and rectal bleeding, the latter dealt with by walking around with a pair of Huggies. Fussell’s roommate Nimrod was in his mind stuck at a lowly 240 pounds even as he ate twelve times a day to reach a more acceptable 280, a goal he visualized by nailing a bed sheet to his bedroom wall and painting the numerals 280, which he gave “repeated coatings” every day until, finally giving up, he settled on the more modest goal of 260, at which time the mood in the shared rental house became so morose that Fussell writes, “We felt someone had died in the family.” We can surmise that had Nimrod reached his goal of 280 or even exceeded it, tipping the scales at 290 or 300, he still would have been possessed by the haunting conviction that he was too small and therefore unworthy of walking the earth.
In recent years Nimrod’s crippling psychological condition has been given a name—bigorexia. Also known as muscular dysmorphia and reverse anorexia, bigorexia is characterized by the delusion that one has woefully failed to meet unrealistic standards of chiseled muscular perfection. Studies show that hundreds of thousands of men are afflicted with this neurosis, which can be so extreme that one man purportedly abstained from having sex with his wife in order to preserve his precious energies for his gym workouts. We can safely surmise that since men with bigorexia often ingest steroids which result in the shriveling of the testicles, that their sex lives suffer as well.
Clearly, pursuing a megalomaniacal scale of muscular development is a psychological affliction. But I do have doubts about our intelligentsia’s compulsion to give a name to every neurotic behavior, which in itself seems excessively neurotic, namely, the proprietary need to take credit for naming this or that malady. If we’re going to call the compulsion to achieve muscular perfection bigorexia, then at what point do we stop naming other specialized neurotic behaviors? If someone for example is overcome with the anxiety that no matter how many thousands of songs he downloads into his iPod he doesn’t have enough songs, do we say he suffers from “iPoderexia”? If someone is constantly reaching into the back of the juice and dairy case to find the freshest expiration dates but always feels his beverage is not fresh enough, does he suffer from “freshexia”? Does the person who compulsively alphabetizes his spices, colognes, CDs, clothes (by label), and every other item he possesses yet constantly feels disorganized, does he suffer from “alphabetizexia”? While I have made up these absurd names to show how ridiculous it is to micromanage every specific neurotic behavior with its own name, there are in fact thousands, of real neurosis names circulating throughout our lexicon. If you have any doubts about our culture’s naming excesses, I refer you to Charles Harrington Elster’s There’s a Word for It!: A Grandiloquent Guide to Life. Therein he lists a variety of names for our modern day maladies such as the condition of having no tolerance for the unpleasant fuzzy sensation of handling peaches, “haptodysphoria”; or the nagging feeling that one has woken up on the wrong side of the bed, “matutolypea”; or the compulsion to stare for prolonged periods at the very things that repulse and disgust you, “cacospectamania.”
I have no doubt that linguists and word lovers who invent these names are often tongue-in-cheek, but those who do so earnestly, especially those who create doubtful “syndromes,” those that are not rooted in science, are entrepreneurial charlatans naming an affliction so that they, taking credit for identifying the “disease,” become “experts.” And as experts, they are in position to offer the definitive “cure” for our physical woes, for which they can now offer their services at a premium fee. In fact, no expertise is required to identify compulsive behaviors, such as bulking-up with steroids to the point that one must wear Huggies, and state the obvious, namely that this person suffers from a psychological affliction. To give this affliction the name bigorexia or any other name seems besides the point. It should be self-evident that our culture is excessive in everything we do. We are vain, we are glory hogs, we want attention, so it should be of no surprise that some of us, especially those of us lacking maturity, seek our glory and attention through physical pursuits in the same way it shouldn’t surprise us that some of us seek veneration through showy cars, houses, and other materialistic trophies. Taking credit for giving a name for what is obviously self-destructive behavior becomes in essence another form of vanity and an inane form at that. We can therefore conclude that the self-described “expert” of the disease is as neurotic as the woeful subject he is naming.
Yes, bigorexia exists. As does anorexia and bulimia and gourmand syndrome and cyclic vomiting syndrome, and binge eating disorder and Orthorexia Nervosa. Americans love naming their afflictions, the more esoteric the better, because the exotic name gives them an identity. Having a well-identified affliction gives them a strong sense of self. Under the banner of this or that syndrome, they can write poetry, “recovery stories,” and “inspirational thoughts.” Take away their pathology and now they are without an identity, a mission, a purpose. They are forever lost lest they find some new affliction for which they can re-invent themselves.