males and eating disorders
Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders do not just affect women. Approximately 10-15% of bulimic individuals, 5-10% of anorexics, and 40% of people who struggle with binge eating disorder are male. Anywhere from 10-20% of male college students are at risk. This translates into millions of college men who may be suffering from this disorder.
There are many risk factors that predispose college men to developing eating disorders. Negative body image and body dissatisfaction are a major factor. This can come in the form of feeling too underweight or overweight. Men with perfectionistic traits, who are achievement oriented and have a high need for control, as well as men with low self-esteem and issues with assertiveness, are at risk.
Certain athletic groups are also at risk, including wrestlers, gymnasts, jockeys, runners and bodybuilders. Clinicians find that men with eating disorders commonly also have depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety, ADHD and/or substance abuse issues.
It was once thought that only gay men were at risk for anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder. This is not the case. In fact, recent studies have found that heterosexual men make up the majority of men with eating disorders. However, this is not to say that gay men do not experience these problems. There is much emphasis in the gay community for men to look a certain way. The difference is that gay men tend to have a greater dialogue and more community and peer supports around body image issues. Heterosexual men tend to feel so much shame around this issue, and thus do not have an outlet to discuss these concerns, for fear that they may be perceived as less masculine or even gay.
It is important to note that women are not alone in being negatively impacted by the daily onslaught of idealized images in society. College men are affected by media messages that promote a lean, muscular build. One does not have to look far to see images of these “Adonis’s” on billboards, clothing stores, men’s fitness magazines, music videos, fashion magazines, and television shows.
When working with college men struggling with this illness, it would be useful to assess their exercise behaviors. It is very common for them to use excessive exercise as a method of purging. This makes it difficult to fully see the gravity of the problem, since exercise is considered a healthy behavior. However, if one is exercising to the point that it is interfering with their life, and where their self-esteem is affected by their body image and exercise behavior, they are at increased risk.
Men with eating disorders are less likely to seek treatment than women with eating disorders. It is important for college campuses to educate staff, students and the campus at large, that these issues are not exclusive to one gender. This helps de-stigmatize the shame that many men feel having an eating disorder. Support groups, eating concern hotlines, and guest speakers are all ways college campuses can reach out to the many college men suffering in silence with these difficult, yet treatable disorders.
Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D.
Harvard Medical School
Co-author of: The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession