Society has stereotypically viewed eating disorders as only affecting teenage girls and women. However, one in three people who form an eating disorder (ED) is boys or men. This article will examine how EDs affect male victims and how they can defeat these life-threatening disorders.
There are at least 30 million people who live with an eating disorder in the United States alone. Indeed, 10 million males will experience an ED at some point in their lives, but because of the stigma attached to both what is considered having a “women’s problem” and reaching out for psychological help, most will never seek help. Even the personnel that serve in the U.S. military are not immune as 4% of the men who serve were found in a study to have an eating disorder (McNulty 1997).
To make the problem even clearer, here are a few more riveting and disturbing statistics.
Most experts agree that 20% to 25% of the total number of people living with an eating disorder are male. However, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders estimates the figure to be even larger with 25% to 40% of males forming an eating disorder sometime in their lifetime.
Why Don’t We Hear About Male Victims of EDs?
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorder’s website is full of vital information about eating disorders and males. They state that the male victims we know about who live with an ED are actually only a small fraction of what is out there. This is because until recently eating disorders in men has not received any attention for many reasons including the following:
- Professional bias against men having an eating disorder leads to males being diagnosed with an ED much less often than females.
- Male victims of EDs are excluded from most eating disorder treatment centers.
- The DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the bible of the psychiatric world until the release of the DSM-V left men out of the diagnostic criteria for EDs
- Research on eating disorders has traditionally only been on women, not men.
To be sure, men and boys who form an eating disorder have many strikes against them.
Eating Disorders Present Differently in Males vs. Females
The National Eating Disorder Association states that while women with eating disorders are primarily concerned with the thin appearance of their bodies, males are typically characterized as having a drive for masculinity.
This male preoccupation with trying to look more manly can lead to disordered eating and excessive exercising. In fact, studies show that more than 90% of adolescent boys exercise predominantly to increase their muscle mass or tone and 66% change their diets to change how they look. Unfortunately, the same study also showed that 15% of adolescent males begin using steroids to enhance their muscular look (Raevuori, et. al., 2014).
Now researchers are discovering evidence that suggests that males disordered eating behaviors are increasing quicker rate than females and male EDs are equally as severe as females.
Clearly, eating disorders in males cannot and should not be considered rare but instead be taken very seriously.
To understand what is going on in the minds of men when it comes to eating disorders, one must first understand muscle dysmorphia.
Muscle Dysmorphia is a form of body dysmorphia where males become obsessed with gaining a muscular physique. Males experiencing this phenomenon will often go to great lengths to improve upon what they see in the mirror as an inferior body.
Some males see themselves as inferior to others and live with the delusion that their body is too small or skinny when, in reality, the person has already built up acceptable muscular mass.
This misconception along with the rigors expected of males in sports can lead to the abuse of steroids and binge eating. If on the other hand, the male sees themselves as being too heavy they may form anorexia and exercise excessively in an attempt to fit in with their peers.
Society’s Role In Eating Disorders in Males
Today’s society places undue stress on males to be brave and stoic even in the face of a major health challenge. Just like females are expected to be thin and beautiful, we often expect men to have large muscles and a stereotypical macho physique.
The toll these stresses and expectations have on boys and men plays a huge role in the formation and the deadliness of eating disorders. Not only do boys and men learn to hate their own bodies, but they also begin to take unnecessary risks to shape and mold them into society’s ideal.
The expectations we pressure males with is even more evident in teenage boys. They live in fear of being inadequate anyway due to puberty and look to other males for how they should look and act. Unfortunately, what they observe has been passed on from other insecure boys leading to misinformation about what a man should look like.
Indeed, males, like females, are dying for perfection they can never achieve. It is time for society to back off and allow both males and females to look at their bodies not with disdain, but with the respect they deserve.
The Delusion of Perfection
It is not just society that puts pressure on males to strive for perfection, the media plays an enormous role in warping the male mind as to what is the perfect body. Daily young men are bombarded with bodybuilding magazines and pictures of movie stars looking sleek and muscular. Never mind the fact that most of the pictures are touched up to make the actor appear more masculine than he is in real life.
Because young men and boys do not yet have a defined sense of self they might seek out external sources to shape their identity. Here is where societal expectations and the media come together offering the delusion and illusion that of what the perfect male looks like.
The present research has shown a link between self-concept, self-esteem, body image and self-worth a worrisome and dangerous combination (Vartanian, 2009). The preoccupation with having the perfect male body leaves men and boys struggling to “bulk up” leading to 25% of normal males believing they are underweight and 90% of teenage boys exercising excessively.
Treatment for Males Living with an Eating Disorder
There are numerous studies that suggest the risk of death for males living with an eating disorder is higher than it is for females so early intervention is vital.
Finding treatment when you are a male with an eating disorder is difficult at best and impossible at worst. This is because most eating disorder clinics are set up to handle female victims, not male.
However, this fact will improve as society begins to recognize through advocacy efforts that men and boys are just as likely to fall prey to an eating disorder as women and girls.
Treatment is not and can not be the same for everyone. For any person, there are many elements that come into play such as heredity and cultural factors. Treatment must consist of a gender-sensitive approach recognizing the differences between each man or boy.
Nutritional treatment and intervention are vital to helping males heal from an eating disorder. Men and boys who have anorexia nervosa have low levels of testosterone and vitamin D meaning supplementation is important. Psychological counseling is also highly recommended to address the emotional difficulties those males who have fallen victim to body dysmorphia. It is critical also to include close supervision by a medical professional to monitor the progress of the male and to watch out for the physical effects of having an ED.
Never Give Up Hope
Males living with an eating disorder often respond well to treatment even if the disorder has become chronic in nature. There are no magic pills or potions that will make a male feel better about themselves, and healing takes time.
However, one should never, ever give up hope. Eating disorders are insidious killers that can be put at bay by restructuring how boys and men see themselves. To be sure, there is no such thing as the perfect alpha male. The pictures and movies lie about how stars and models look and it is guaranteed that the men pictured feel a sense of discontent with their bodies too.
Having questions and emotions about how one looks is totally normal. Everyone wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and wonders if they are handsome/pretty.
One does not need to be “buff” or have the “perfect” physique to be a man. What makes a man is what they treat other people. If a boy or man treats others with respect and dignity, that is the mark of a true man.
If you or someone you know is living with an eating disorder please, reach out to your doctor or someone you can trust and get help. You are much too important to lose to the tragedy of an eating disorder.
The National Eating Disorders Association Helpline
The National Eating Disorders Association offers a helpline for support, resources, and treatment options. The helpline hours are Monday – Thursday from 11 AM to 9 PM ET, and Friday from 11 AM to 5 PM ET.
If you call during hours when they are not available to answer the phone, please leave a message for them and they will contact you back ASAP. The number is:
If you would rather chat online with someone, you can go to the following website and do so.
McNulty, P. A. F. (1997). Prevalence and contributing factors of eating disorder behaviors in active duty Navy men. Military Medicine, 162(11), 753-758.
Raevuori, A., Keski-Rahkonen, A., & Hoek, H. W. (2014). A review of eating disorders in males. Current opinion in psychiatry, 27(6), 426-430.
Vartanian, L. R. (2009). When the body defines the self: Self-concept clarity, internalization, and body image. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 28(1), 94-126.