First of kind research gives clearer picture of body image

Publication date
Tuesday, 16 Aug 2022
Jessica Hewitt, Cassidy Shaw, eating disorder, muscle dysmorphia, body image, women,
Jessica Hewitt, Cassidy Shaw, eating disorder, muscle dysmorphia, body image, women,

In a first of its kind study, Ms Cassidy Shaw a Clinical Psychology PhD scholar at the Australian National University (ANU) has provided a clearer clinical picture about Muscle Dysmorphia – a predominantly male psychological condition with a focus on muscularity and leanness in the body.

Although eating disorders in males account for approximately 1 in 4 presentations in preadolescents, only 1% of research is focused on eating and body image related disorders in males, making Ms Shaw’s findings particularly important in refining diagnostic criteria, as well as considering assessment and treatment for the muscle dysmorphia disorder.

With the support and encouragement of her supervisors - Dr Kristen Murray, Associate Professor Elizabeth Rieger, Dr Conal Monaghan and Professor Bruce Christensen - Ms Shaw recently presented her findings at the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Eating Disorders (ANZAED) Conference in Sydney.

“Over the past 30 years, there has been a significant increase in the number of males presenting with body image disturbances particularly muscularity concerns, and the severity of those presentations is also increasing,” Ms Shaw explained.

“Using Exploratory and Confirmatory Factor Analysis (EFA, CFA) and Item Response Theory, analysing responses from 510 males aged 18 to 45 years, it was found that there are five features of Muscle Dysmorphia. They are, supplement and substance use; muscularity-oriented eating; obligatory exercises; and drive for both increased size and leanness.”

Ms Shaw further advised, “Males who eat to build muscle are classified with moderate-severe levels of dysmorphia and those who use supplements and substances have higher levels of muscle dysmorphia severity.”

Ms Shaw was in good company at the ANZAED Conference, attending with fellow Clinical Psychology PhD scholar, Ms Jessica Hewitt.

Ms Hewitt, who is supervised by Dr Kristen Murray, Associate Professor Elizabeth Rieger and Dr Conal Monaghan, discussed Australian women’s knowledge and beliefs about negative body image, examining their understanding of aesthetic (ie. what the body looks like) and functional concerns (ie. what the body can do).

“Our study found that negative body image literacy is poor among women in the Australian community, particularly for functional body image problems.”

“Women were significantly better at recognising depictions of aesthetic body image concerns compared to functional body concerns." Ms Hewitt further explained, "Women were more sympathetic and endorsed greater help seeking for aesthetic body problems, which was also perceived as a more distressing and common problem compared to concerns related to the way the body functions.”

“We also found that women who reported viewing their body as an object to be evaluated by others were also less likely to endorse seeking help for body image concerns relating to appearance.”

Ms Hewitt added, “We know that women who don’t seek help for body image concerns are at higher risk for a range of poor mental health outcomes including anxiety, depression and development of eating disorders, which is why future work in this area is important.”

In addition to presenting, both women had an opportunity to network with peers and experts in the field of eating disorders, from around the world.

“As someone researching eating disorders in male populations and in particular muscle dysmorphia which isn’t widely researched, it was wonderful to meet other people interested in this area and learn about their work,” Ms Shaw said.

Ms Hewitt added, “It was great to attend an event that drew together professionals from various disciplines such as clinical psychologists, dietitians, general practitioners, academics, sports psychologists and so on, and to have the opportunity to discuss my research with those from varying backgrounds.”