Men, muscularity and eating disorders: When does the pursuit of a six-pack become a problem?
Updated: Jul 5, 2020
We have gotten used to hearing and reading about the challenges that females have with body image and eating disorders. The struggle that girls and women face in striving for perfection starts at a young age with many suffering for their entire life. A less popular discussion is the fact that men and boys are tormented by the same things. It may look a bit different and they are certainly not willing to talk about it. Boys grow up with impossible body images to emulate as well. Girls have Barbie and now photoshopped or implanted Instagram models, and boys have superheroes, rock stars, movie and TV celebrities, Instagram models, and yes– porn stars. As much as we may intellectually understand that they are only action heroes, or computer game characters, our subconscious may often believe that those physiques are within reach, are what is expected of us, or is the only way to be attractive and competitive.(1)
Up to 90% of American men in college express a desire to be more muscular. (1) This aspiration goes even deeper to young boys as young as 4-year-olds reporting that they want those ‘big guns’. “In the US alone, up to 60% of all boys report purposefully manipulating their dietary practices in the pursuit of greater muscularity.”(2) Thinness isn’t the goal. It’s striving for leanness that will achieve the desired muscle mass. This need to be super buff is partially achieved by greatly modifying and controlling eating. A muscularity-oriented eating disorder includes extreme food restrictions, ‘cutting’ and ‘bulking’ in various forms, and purging.
Why is this happening? What are the underlying issues? Just like everything else, there are reasons for our actions. Some are hidden and run deep, and others are far too apparent. “Bobby looks so good. How can he have an eating disorder if he looks so strong and healthy?” This is a core reason why eating disorders are marginalized in men that are obsessed with their physique. It’s not only overlooked but encouraged. Encouraged by the trainers at the gym, the dads at home, the girls at school, social media, dating apps, and let’s not forget the action heroes and game characters. Almost any boy that is in a team sport now is encouraged at younger and younger ages to “work out, lean down, get faster, stronger.” We live in a society that tells us that our boys and men don’t need any help managing this. That it’s just fine for them to do whatever they are doing to look this way and in fact, they are doing what is healthy for them. In some cases, they are clearly living a clean, healthy, reasonable life. But in many cases, they are not. Because men internalize, it is easy to miss the physical and possibly more important, emotional suffering that is being experienced by these boys and men, and the profound impact it is having on those who desperately try to live up to an impossible standard.
It has been studied that men with muscularity obsessions and body-image dissatisfaction, have reported higher levels of depression. It is also believed that these men suffer from ‘gender-role strain’. This is when men become tormented by not feeling like they are representative of what they were taught ‘manhood’ to be. The more muscular, the more manly? A muscular man is more likely to be able to offer greater protection, be a better provider and prove to be a superior breeder? This was probably true when we were living in caves, but brute force is rarely needed today.
A recent study from Harvard and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) is the first to investigate the relationship between men and their muscularity. The research was conducted among 2,460 American males between age 18 and 32.(3) . It is reported that “….this drive for muscularity could be a sign that young men don't have mastery over their lives, but they may feel that they're mastering how to work out”.(4) These men are also more likely to take muscle-building supplements, anabolic steroids and binge drink on the weekends. The Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness reports that between 2.4 and 3.6 million men suffer from eating disorders today.(5) This statistic is likely underestimated because guys are far less likely to seek out help or to identify themselves as having a problem. Men who think they might have a problem with limiting food, going hungry or obsessively working out may have a problem. Talking about it can help. Speaking to a therapist or other men that are experiencing the same issues can be the support that men need.
1. Murray, S. B. , et al. (2017). The enigma of male eating disorders: A critical review and synthesis. Clinical Psychology Review, 57 (2017) 1-11
2. Lavendar, J. M. , et al. (2018). Men, Muscles, and Eating Disorders: An Overview of Traditional and Muscularity-Oriented Disordered Eating. Current Psychiatry Reports, 1-13
3. Elk-Nes, T. T. ,et al. (2018). Prospective health associations of drive for muscularity in young adult males. International Journal of Eating Disorders. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/eat.22943
4. Cassella, C. (2018) Mounting Evidence Shows a Dark Side to Our Obsession With Ripped Men. ScienceAlert. https://www.sciencealert.com/men-obsessed-with-bulking-muscles-more-depressed-and-likely-to-binge-drink
5. Body Image Men. https://www.mirror-mirror.org/body-image-men.htm