Eating Disorders in Males and Male Athletes: Their Secret Disease?

By Lucy P.

The focus of eating disorders in sports has predominantly revolved around women athletes, with males being pushed aside and therefore in danger of being missed (Baum, 2006). Perhaps this is because of the influential media demands of the idealistic woman, or the sexualisation surrounding women’s sports? As discussed in class, males are not always encouraged to express their emotions, but over exaggerate their masculinity. Reported in a recent study it showed few males report eating disorders or find other excuses for them as opposed to what they really are (Nelson, 2014). It is unfortunate that men still feel isolated to conform to such a specific stereotype, despite the numerous resources for health, emotions and equality.

Growing up in today’s generation, there are so many stereotypical pressures to live up to it becomes impossible to satisfy society. Males, and specifically male athletes feel obliged to live up to the masculine, strong and powerful ideology that has been created for a ‘real man’.

These stereotypes are embedded in boys from a young age. They are taught to be ‘rough and tough’, whereas in reality, it is only oppressing emotions and acceptance of their individuality. Unfortunately, the culture we are surrounded by does not think there are barriers to be broken in male sports, but yet, male athletes would still rather suffer in silence, and question their denial of eating disorders with things such as, is there something wrong with me? Does it mean I am girly? Is this affecting my masculinity? (Nelson, 2014).

I don’t think anyone who has participated in sports can deny the physical and mental demands of an elite/professional athlete. Continuously being surrounded by coaches or parents telling you that you can do better or work harder; opponents that can still somehow beat you. It becomes almost second nature to believe that the sacrifice to be the best athlete will outweigh any struggle along the way. This now, common mentality is perpetuating eating disorders as normality to meet weighs in, fitness testing and body conditioning regulations. A study stated that males are more susceptible in comparison to their counterparts, as women are naturally lighter and smaller, therefore male athletes have to go to greater lengths to achieve their goal weight or body image (Baum, 2006).

Another source imposing influence would be the endless media demands, unrealistic body images of superhuman strong men making every headline, magazines and commercials furthermore prompting eating disorders with the need to look a certain way. It is so evident that women undergo the media’s expectations, but why is it that society thinks that men don’t experience the same social and cultural pressures? The media not only creates an image for the ‘perfect’ female, but also this fantasy that male athletes are untouchable, and god like, which promotes their physical and sexual appeal, but demoralizes any other characteristic. In an article by Jackson Katz, he highlighted a very valid point – that men do feel pressures, men have less access to more abstract forms of masculine validating power, like economic or work place authority, so the physical body and it’s potential creates a concrete means of asserting manhood. (Katz, 2011).

Societies fighting against traditional norms and becoming more accepting of equal status has been significant within the last decade, yet there are still underlying issues that go unnoticed. More so from a males perspective as there is constant review of females equality and influences. With constant resistance from male athletes, pressure from coaches and stereotypes, together they create a serious health risk that may be life threatening (NEDA, 2015). There remains significant stigma surrounding psychiatric illness in the athletic arena, and perhaps more so still among male athletes (Baum, 2006). I hope that as we continue to resist the norms and break the barriers for equality, that male pressures and influences will also be recognised as much as women’s. Because in the end, are we not all fighting to conquer the same cultural differences together? Women want to be seen as equal counterparts in sports, so why can’t men be allowed to feel the same pressures and influences of society?

References

NEDA. (2015). Athletes and Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/athletes-and-eating-disorders

Katz, J. (2011). Unexpected social pressures in males. Retrieved from http://www.wstudies.pitt.edu/blogs/msf31/unexpected-social-pressures-males

Nelson, J. (2014). Male athletes and eating disorders. Retrieved from http://globalsportsdevelopment.org/athletes-eating-disorders/

Baum, A. (2006). Eating disorders in the male athlete. Sports Medicine, 36(1), 1-6.

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5 responses

  1. Great Post Lucy!

    Body image issues are generally seen as a problem only females face. Representation of female athletes has influenced cultural perceptions of gender identity, gender expectations, and body ideals. Females are routinely scrutinized, objectified, and dehumanized. These cultural feminization of eating disorders and body image problems has without a doubt led a belief that men who face these challenges are failing to conform to their masculine identity.

    Recent studies have revealed that young men are increasingly struggling with body image issues. As we discussed in class, The Journal of Pediatrics revealed that more that 40% of boys in middle school and high school exercised regularly to build muscle mass. This study also found that 34% of these boys reported using protein powders and shakes, while 10% reported use of other muscle enhancing supplements, and 6% admitted to steroid use. In a sports culture characterized by bulging biceps and rippling abs many young boys are socialized to believe their muscularity and strength is directly associated with their worth as a man. These findings has led to a body image disorder known as ‘bigorexia’, which involves an obsession about building muscle and achieving the ‘perfect’ body.

    It is important to recognize that body image disorder appraisals center around feminine symptoms and fail to recognize symptoms that men and boys may experience. It is not surprising then that women comprise the majority of individuals with eating disorders. Findings based on these traditional appraisals suggest that strategies to encourage healthy body perceptions should target young women. I think that it is important that healthy living advocates consider how males and females experience body images issues differently in terms of symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment. Initiatives need to be designed accordingly to ensure athletes regardless of gender have a healthy body image.

  2. Awesome post!

    I think this is a great topic to discuss as I believe it is something that is almost completely overlooked. No ethnic,gender, or socioeconomic group is immune to the effects that eating disorders have. Although, it is so commonly looked at as a female issue. Your paragraph where you speak about men having to portray themselves as masculine, strong, powerful and emotionless is great! Having this ideology makes it really difficult for a man to seek help or even acknowledge that they have an eating disorder because of how strongly it is related to females/femininity. Binge eating disorder and bulimia are very common among men who suffer with eating disorder because overeating men are rarely looked at as strange. Men who seek help may feel ashamed due to the stereotype surrounding the disease.

    I think its great you brought up how media is very influential on men as well. It got me thinking about the movie Magic Mike. This is being portrayed as entertainment, with buff hot looking men, but it is not looked at as unrealistic/ideological. If the movie had the same story plot, but was about a female, the reaction I believe would be much different. Media outlets that praise, and make men “godlike” are just adding to the silent pressures men are facing. As you mentioned (and we spoke about in class), men are less likely to show emotion, therefor I believe that makes them less likely to speak out about media portrayals of unrealistic/ideological body images of men.

    According to nationaleatingdisorders.org, only 10% of people who seek help from a medical professional regarding eating disorders are men. This does not mean that only 10% of people suffering from eating disorders are men, it just means they are the only ones seeking help. I believe that because of the stigma/stereotypes around eating disorders many men are unaware/unwilling to seek help, and this can be extremely dangerous.

    Breaking the stereotypes, that reinforce eating disorders as feminine, would drastically change the percent of men who seek help for the disorder. I think educating EVERYONE one male and female eating disorders would help decrease the number of people suffering.

    Great topic !!

    –Sarah

  3. Thank you for bringing this up, Lucy! When we talk about gender, creating more opportunities for women in society is most often talked about and the issues they face. I think that in the fight to create an equal society, issues must be discussed from the perspective of both men and women. Eating disorders are one example that are often only associated with women but affect both genders. It is important to remember that we are all people first and foremost and men too are or can be affected by the same societal and personal pressures.

    Body image and eating disorders are seen as a weakness and are hard for people to come to terms with. Stereotypically, women are seen as the weaker sex and more often develop these disorders as a way to fit into society’s ideal image. Women are most often seen as the most vulnerable and therefore many initiatives are to assist them. Men are just as susceptible to these pressures. I agree with what Hannah said, doing more research on the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders in both males and females would increase understanding and decrease stereotypes in society. This is something that can affect everyone either directly or indirectly. The percentage of men who would seek help if the issue was discussed more would increase.

    As discussed in class, media portrayal of women can have a large effect on what females think of themselves and what they do everyday. There are definitely more advertisements and campaigns today focused on women’s confidence and self-esteem and telling them they can be whoever they want to be. For men, it is not seen as masculine to talk about issues and emotions that may arise from viewing controversial media. This does not mean there is nothing wrong merely a different perspective and approach should be taken to bringing it to the forefront than with women.

    A disease or disorder often becomes a person’s identity over their gender. Some are more often associated with one gender over the other. “That person in the wheelchair” shows that people see the disability first. With eating disorders, gender is still attached because they are more often seen in women and accepted because of the societal pressure of women as the weaker sex. Taking away gender in these instances is not the answer, these diseases and disorders are a part of people’s identities. Educating people on this disease and the effects it can have will help provide proper treatment for those who need it most.

  4. Lucy,

    This was a great post! I found it related well to everything we learned about and discussed in class surrounding media and gender ideals. This definitely seems like an area in which we, as sport and recreation professionals and students, need to focus more of our attention and research toward.

    I think you are exactly right in saying that there are so many pressures from society telling men what they are supposed to look like and how only these ideal body types are attractive and so on. There are these same types of pressures on females today but I think society has a better understanding of how they (the pressures) influence girls. There is so much talk surrounding educating girls on understanding that the female bodies portrayed in the media are unrealistic but hardly anything for young boys. These young boys are just as vulnerable as the girls and need the same type of help. And, as you said, the fact that society tells these young boys that talking about their feelings and being emotional is how they should not be, just makes this education process so much harder.

    I wonder if coaches and sport/recreation professionals can help with this in some way. Perhaps working toward creating more safe spaces for young boys and older men alike to discuss the issues may help. I think the more males who speak out about their problems will encourage others who may be suffering in silence to speak up and get the support they need.

    Molly M.

  5. Lucy,

    Thank you for sharing such an immaculately thought-out blog post. I am a big fan of Dr. Katz, and personally I have begun to focus my own studies on male embodiment; how men embody their gender identities. As discussed in class, ‘bigorexia’ has become a huge problem for men. Though not mentioned explicitly in your post, the same rational rings true for both topics; men are struggling with body image issues, they are engaging with extreme or risky behaviors to endeavour on achieving the ‘perfect’ male body–or at least one that lives up to hegemonic standards.

    The other day, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson posted his diet on reddit.com. The man eats nothing but cod, sweet potatoes, and vegetables! That may not be an extreme diet, but when you factor in that he is eating cod in the |thousands| of pounds per year, the issue becomes a little more pronounced. However, Dwayne is also highly regarded as having one of the best male physiques on the planet–he undertakes this diet and exercise routine to keep that physique immaculate.

    Thank you very much for sharing; if this is an area you are continuing studies in I would love to get together and share notes 🙂

    Jamie

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