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A weighty confession

PHOTO: ST FILE

After more than 20 years of trying to come to terms with my body, I realise that I suffer from body image disorder

It has taken me more than two decades to admit this, but I think I may have body dysmorphic disorder.

The realisation came when someone innocently asked me the other day whether I had lost weight.

Not again, I thought to myself, as I struggled to formulate an answer that I would be happy with.

"Yes, I lost 5kg recently when I had a bad bout of food poisoning," I told this colleague. "I've been trying to gain it back ever since."


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

"Why?" she asked. "You look great. What I'd give to lose 5kg in a few days!"

I managed a weak smile, but inside I was grimacing.

The truth was I had indeed suffered a nasty bout of food poisoning, but I had already gained back all the weight I had lost. Was that not apparent to her?

So many men still think that male body image issues don’t exist, let alone will publicly admit to struggling with them.

I went back to my office in a slight panic to stare at my reflection in the full-length mirror I had installed. The scales say I'm back at 74kg, so why do I still look so gaunt? My shoulders look narrower than usual and the belt around my waist feels loose.

Then it struck me. I have never really been happy with the way my body looks - whatever the weight reading has been throughout my adult life.

There is probably an ideal weight that corresponds to my 1.68m frame, but I have never hit it - not at 60kg, not at 70kg or even at 84kg, the heaviest that I have ever been.

In my eyes, I will always be too skinny and never big or muscular enough. And there is a name for this specific type of dysfunction: muscle dysmorphia.

The problem, of course, is that disorders of this type are so easily passed off by sufferers and those around them as normal behaviour, what with this health-obsessed, image-conscious world we live in. It's sometimes known as "bigorexia" - a cartoonish- sounding word that hardly even seems real.

From the first day I paid for a gym membership and walked through the doors, I have felt that compulsively lifting heavy weights and force-feeding myself bodybuilding supplements was just part and parcel of a fitness regimen that has become de rigueur for any self-respecting young urban professional. After all, everyone wants to look and feel good in the clothes he is wearing or not wearing, as the situation may dictate.

As I got older and unbridled vanity became as age- inappropriate as the tight Hollister tee-shirts I was still sporting, I told myself that my obsession with the gym was necessary for a different reason.

Cardio exercises reduce the probability of stroke and heart attacks, and weight training slows muscle degradation in the twilight years. In other words, my fitness regimen was doing my body good.

Except that my fitness regimen wasn't making me fitter or healthier at all.

Till today, I rarely go on the treadmill or a stationary bike, for fear that cardio workouts will accelerate weight loss I feel I can ill afford.

The result is that I am probably in worse shape than many men 10 years my senior. Many are running marathons even as I huff and puff my way up and down a flight of stairs.

My visits to the supplement store over the years have also been for all the wrong reasons.

From creatine monohydrate to arginine and glutamine, branched chain animo acids to all manner of testosterone boosters, I don't really care about the science. Instead, I buy supplements for the simple reason that they will somehow make me look bigger.

Many of the supplements do this by promoting water retention in the body. For a period, I even took nitric oxide pills because they dilate the blood vessels, making muscles appear rounder and fuller.

Meanwhile, I have lived with the side effects of taking these strange compounds, especially the increased aggression that occasionally spilled over into my work and personal relationships.

If only I could take back some of the more foolish comments or e-mails of my young adult life, those grouchy mornings when everyone and everything seemed to irritate - a high price to pay, in retrospect, for that temporary extra inch on the chest or biceps.

I guess why I am only now coming to terms with my behaviour is that I think I finally understand its root cause. It's all too easy to blame idealised images in the cultural mass media, the 1980s muscle cult of Schwarzenegger and Van Damme. But actually, when you read about the origins of any kind of obsessive behaviour, the link is always drawn to the sufferer's past.

One popular theory suggests muscle dysmorphia is caused by low self-esteem and early childhood experiences such as bullying and teasing. And if an individual keeps hearing these negative thoughts about his appearance - especially in his own head - he starts to compare his own body with an unattainable ideal.

In that sense, I am a walking cliche, having been bullied in primary school because I was slight and effeminate. But at the annual Education Forum held by this newspaper some weeks ago, I received another insight.

The forum featured various early childhood education specialists who were emphasising the important role of talking, playing and dancing in a child's formative years. One of the three speakers - a professor from the United States - spoke about the importance of rough-and-tumble play, not just in the first years of a person's childhood, but also in school and throughout his growing-up years.

The next speaker then showed a slide connecting a deficiency in such physical interaction to the development of body confidence and body image issues in later life.

A light went on in my head. I grew up in a typical Peranakan household that frowned on their precious eldest son engaging in dangerous physical activity and going out in the sun. To make things worse, my school years were marked by medical problems that kept me on the sidelines as my classmates played football and basketball after lessons.

I wasn't resentful then, but I understand now how the sum of all those parts have added up to the person I am today.

This also suggests, however, that there are probably many more body dysmorphic men out there who are still dealing with the ghosts of their past. Yet so many men - even in this day and age - still think that male body image issues don't exist and shouldn't exist, let alone will publicly admit to struggling with them.

So the next time you see a colleague or a friend eating extra portions at lunch that he obviously doesn't enjoy, wearing body-hugging polo tees on Friday or looking downcast in the weeks he has cycled off his secret stash of supplements, keep that knowing look to yourself and spare a thought.

One day, like me, they will admit to their problem and start on that road to self-acceptance and recovery.

Meanwhile, be kind and resist asking them about their weight.

•Follow Ignatius Low on Twitter @STIgnatiusLow

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2015, with the headline 'A weighty confession'. Print Edition | Subscribe