Men’s poor relationship with their father is linked to increased muscle dysmorphia symptoms indirectly through vulnerable narcissism, according to new psychology research published in Personality and Individual Differences.
Muscle dysmorphia, also known as “bigorexia” or “reverse anorexia,” is a type of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) that is characterized by an excessive preoccupation with muscularity and body size, combined with a distorted self-image. Muscle dysmorphia is more commonly reported in men than in women, and often co-occurs with other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The researchers were interested in exploring the associations between muscle dysmorphia, narcissism, and relationship with father in a male population, as this area had not been studied before. They hypothesized that a negative relationship with the father would lead to an increase in muscle dysmorphia symptoms due to a lack of a positive masculine role model, leading to undermined self-esteem. The study aimed to investigate whether this relationship was explained through vulnerable or grandiose narcissism.
“Muscle dysmorphia is a growing health concern in today’s society, with serious health consequences for those affected,” explained study author Sebastian S. Sandgren, an associate professor at the University of Stavanger.
“We therefore need more research to better understand this mental health disorder in order to effectively prevent and treat symptoms in the future. Exploring the associations between personality characteristics (narcissism) and the father/son relationship is one step further in understanding risk factors for the development of muscle dysmorphia.”
To conduct the study, the researchers recruited 503 English-speaking men aged between 18 and 78 years through non-probability sampling via social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit over a nine-month period. To protect potentially vulnerable individuals, those who reported a history of a clinical mental health disorder diagnosis were excluded. Participants completed self-report measures of muscle dysmorphia, narcissism, and relationship with father.
The results of the study found a negative indirect effect of relationship with father on muscle dysmorphia symptoms via vulnerable narcissism but not via grandiose narcissism. In other words, those who disagreed with statements such as “My father is very important to me” and “My father helped me learn new things” were more likely to agree with statements such as “I often feel as if I need compliments from others in order to be sure of myself,” which in turn was associated with heightened muscle dysphoria.
Grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism are two subtypes of narcissism that differ in their presentation and underlying psychological mechanisms.
Grandiose narcissism is characterized by an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy towards others. People with grandiose narcissism tend to display grandiose behaviors and beliefs, such as believing they are superior to others, seeking out attention and admiration, and feeling entitled to special treatment.
On the other hand, vulnerable narcissism is characterized by a more fragile sense of self-esteem and self-worth, combined with feelings of insecurity and anxiety. People with vulnerable narcissism may have a strong need for validation and attention from others, but may also feel ashamed or inadequate when they do not receive it.
The new findings suggests that a perceived poor relationship with one’s father may lead to males developing unhealthy views of themselves characterized by low self-esteem and self-centeredness. Attempts to seek validation and build self-esteem may then be manifested by an unhealthy preoccupation with muscularity.
“This study shows that men’s poor relationship with their father can increase muscle dysmorphia symptoms indirectly through vulnerable narcissism,” Sandgren told PsyPost. “Young men should be aware of their relationship with lifting weights and their motives for training, and have the courage to seek support and talk to someone if needed (e.g., if you frequently feel anxious when missing a workout and/or you feel your training is taking over your life in a negative way). There is support available.”
Overall, this study offers novel insights into potential risk factors for the development of muscle dysmorphia symptoms in men. The findings highlight the importance of positive masculine role models in male development and suggest that interventions targeted towards building positive self-esteem may be effective in preventing the development of muscle dysmorphia symptoms.
“An important area for future muscle dysmorphia research is to develop and test interventions to help with addressing symptoms,” Sandgren said. “Many people with muscle dysmorphia do not seek support or help, likely due to the stigma attached to the disorder and men’s mental health in general and that the treatments or interventions available for eating disorders may not appeal to many men with muscle dysmorphia symptoms.”
“It will be imperative that future interventions are participant-centered and consider the needs of the target population. There’s lots left to do, but this important work has finally started (my research team have started a new project called MDID – Muscle Dysmorphia Intervention Development).”
The study, “My father, myself, and my muscles: Associations between muscle dysmorphia, narcissism and relationship with father among exercising males“, was authored by Matt W. Boulter, Tom Wooldridge, Vegard E. Bjelland, and Sebastian S. Sandgren.