Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) & Muscle Dysmorphia

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There’s a connection between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) & muscle dysmorphia, which is a strong desire to bulk up your body.

According to new research by Kyle Ganson, an assistant professor in Canada & a licensed clinical social worker who’s worked with teenagers & young adults, boys who experience abuse, neglect, incarceration or divorce of a parent, poverty, or parental mental illness or substance use, are more likely to develop muscle dysmorphia. That’s important because it a) suggests ways to prevent muscle dysmorphia and b) indicates which boys may benefit from screening and intervention.

Many well-meaning adults miss (or ignore) the symptoms of muscle dysmorphia because, on the surface, many of those symptoms appear healthy. A sudden, dedicated interest in fitness is often praised by parents & coaches; so is boys’ desire to “eat healthy.” But muscle dysmorphia is unhealthy and can become physically and emotionally damaging. Boys and men who are obsessed with bulking up may prioritize working out over all else. They may decline social outings and family gatherings that revolve around food.

Adults may assume that a boy’s desire to bulk up is rooted in his desire to obtain a specific “look.”  But “sometimes for boys, it’s not always about the aesthetic appearance; it’s about the function,” Kyle says. That may be especially true for boys who were bullied or abused.

What the research says about ACES & muscle dysmorphia

Kyle’s research showed that children who experience 5 or more ACEs are more likely than others to develop symptoms of muscle dysmorphia. That association “was particularly strong for boys & young men,” he says. In fact, 30% of young boys who had 5 or more ACES were at clinical risk of muscle dysmorphia. (For comparison, only 10% of the girls who had 5 or more ACEs were at clinical risk of muscle dysmorphia.) The researchers also found that boys who experienced multiple ACEs were more likely than others to use performance enhancing drugs and supplements.

Please note: Not all children who have ACEs experience adverse outcomes. However, if your son has a history of ACEs, stay alert for possible symptoms of muscle dysmorphia. If he shows a sudden interest in going to the gym or changing his diet, Kyle recommends approaching him with “respectful curiosity.” Ask questions; listen carefully.

In this episode, Jen, Janet, & Kyle discuss:
  • Symptoms of muscle dysmorphia
  • The link between ACEs & muscle dysmorphia
  • Why ACES may increase the risk of muscle dysmorphia for boys
  • Dealing with diet culture
  • Talking to healthcare professionals about muscle dysmorphia
Links we mentioned (or should have) in this episode:

Adverse Childhood Experiences and Muscle Dysmorphia Symptomatology: Findings from a Sample of Canadian Adolescents and Young Adults — Kyle’s research study

Body Image, Eating Disorders, & Boys — ON BOYS episode

Helping Boys Develop Healthy Body Image — ON BOYS episode

Boys & Body Image — ON BOYS episode

Why Now is the Best Time to Raise Boys (w Michael Reichert) — ON BOYS episode

Picky Eaters, Family Meals, & Nutrition — ON BOYS episode

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