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Men, Body Image and Eating Disorders

Exponent article by Dr Brian Kassarr
Counseling & Psychological Services

Approximately one million men in the U.S. suffer from an eating disorder. Once thought to be a problem faced only by women, the number of men with eating disorders and body image disturbance is steadily increasing.

The term "eating disorder" encompasses many behaviors. Restricted eating, intense fears of becoming fat, binge eating, purging (e.g. self-induced vomiting), or compulsive over-eating are all behaviors associated with anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. Research shows that as many as one in ten men have eating disorders, and that 10% of those seeking treatment for an eating disorder are male. It is difficult to ascertain exact numbers because many men do not come forward with their problem due to the belief (theirs and society's) that it's a "woman's problem."

Longitudinal studies show that men's dissatisfaction with their body image has tripled over the last 30 years, and that 40-60% of male respondents reported a significant body image disturbance. Body image disturbance is defined by a man having distressing thoughts, fears or worries about his body, often accompanied with desires, preoccupations and/or attempts to alter appearance through diet, exercise, or disordered eating. Symptoms of body image disturbance include excessive worry, anxiety, or depression about appearance; hiding or camouflaging body (e.g. wearing baggy clothes, refusing to take shirt off at the beach); use of drugs or growth-promoting supplements (legal or illegal); or an intense need/desire to work out to increase muscularity. Body image disturbance in males often goes unnoticed because men tend to look healthy or engage in what we typically see as healthy behaviors, such as working out. It is important to realize that while working out is healthy, excessive exercise can be detrimental if it is done in order to allay the fear or anxiety accompanying an unhealthy body image.

One reason for men's increasing dissatisfaction with their bodies is how society's view of the "ideal" male has shifted. The "ideal" male is young, smooth, and extremely muscular with chiseled pectorals, bulging biceps, and "6-pack" abs. These images abound in fitness magazines, fashion advertisements, and popular movies and TV. Studies have examined male models and found that they are indeed becoming more muscular: a study of Playgirl centerfolds over the last 25 years shows that the models have gained 27 pounds of muscle. Even action figures have bulked up: the original GI Joe would be 5'10", have a 31" waist, 44" chest, and 12" biceps if he were a real man. Fast-forward to the GI Joe of the 90's and he would remain 5'10" but his waist has shrunk to 28" and his chest and biceps have swelled to 50" and 22" respectively.

Researchers are concerned with this trend and believe that it impacts how men view their own bodies. One study of college males found that, when asked to pick their ideal body type, participants picked body types that had an average of 28 pounds more muscle. Of particular concern is that, according to many researchers, most fitness models have a fat-free mass index and muscular form that is not attainable without the use of steroids. The sad effect is that men may be trying to achieve unattainable results and putting themselves at physical and emotional harm by doing so.

Advertising is also playing into men's insecurities and contributing to unhealthy body image. Advertisements include products ranging from facial cleansers to hair restoration to cosmetic procedures and all have the same goal: to generate insecurity and sell their products or services. In 1999, men spent $3.3 on men's grooming and toiletries; $4.27 billion on gym memberships; $1.6 billion on hair transplant/restoration and $5.07 million on risky cosmetic procedures such as pectoral implants, penile augmentation, and liposuction.

Educate yourself and others about these issues to stop the cycle. Re-consider what the "ideal" male body type is who defines it. Become more aware of media images of muscular men and what they perpetuate. Stop and think what is motivating you to exercise or diet; exercise for health first and appearance second. Seek help from a physician or counselor if you feel you may have problems with weight, eating, or body image. Learn more about men's body image in "The Adonis Complex" by Pope, Phillips, and Olivardia.


View Text-only Version Text-only Updated: 12/17/08
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