Male identified individuals have been traditionally underrepresented in research regarding eating disorders and body image (Limbers et al., 2018; Stuart et ., 2017). This is not because men do not experience concerns related to eating or their bodies. In fact, in a recent national sample of adolescents and young adults in the United States, 5.5% of males were found to be at an elevated risk for eating disorders (Lipson & Sonneville, 2017). Rather, the stigma, shame, and lack of awareness regarding these concerns for young men often act as significant barriers for proper assessment and treatment (Darcy & Lin, 2012; Limbers et al., 2018). While this is certainly true for all male-identified individuals, one subgroup of men which exhibits higher rates of eating disorders than the general male population is competitive athletes (DeFeciani, 2015). These factors, along with the fact that eating disorders often develop during times of transition, mean that it is of vital importance for attention to be placed on the support of and treatment of male student-athletes (Littleton & Ollendick, 2003).
A component of this process is working to increase awareness and normalize conversation regarding body image, appearance concerns, and eating habits, especially for male-identified students and student-athletes. At Illinois State University, The Body Project: More than Muscles, is used to promote these conversations. More than Muscles has been developed for both male-identified students and student-athletes, and it helps to challenge the male appearance ideal. This cultural appearance ideal for men is often defined as “a V-shaped figure with an emphasis placed on large biceps, chest, and shoulders” (Chatzopoulou et al., 2019, pg. 1273). The pressure to achieve a particular body weight, size, and/or shape can be particularly prevalent for male athletes who often exist in a culture that promotes problematic weight control behaviors (DeFeciani, 2015). These behaviors can include restricting caloric intake, over-exercising, binging, purging, or the consumption of performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids. Not only do the symptoms of these behaviors not help with performance, but they can also lead to a myriad of physical and mental health concerns.
These problems can be exacerbated by the fact that many male-identified individuals struggle to discuss either their feelings or thoughts about eating and their bodies. Additionally, treatment options are often limited for male-identified individuals, as “only about 20%” of residential-based eating disorder programs accept men (Goldstein et al., 2016). As a result, it is vital for those who interact with young men on college campuses to be knowledgeable about body image and eating concerns and be willing to speak with students to normalize the conversation. Therapists need to intentionally explore the eating behaviors of their clients, particularly when working with male athletes. Additionally, it is important for coaches, trainers, professors, and other members of campus communities to understand that body image and eating concerns are both prevalent and problematic for young men and their development, and normalizing conversations about body positivity and emotions can be helpful. While these conversations can initially feel uncomfortable due to the stigma surrounding these topics, that makes them even more important. The ability to identify and support male students and student-athletes with eating disorders and/or body image concerns will benefit all who are involved (DFeciani, 2016).
Positive body image has been associated with a greater sense of self-esteem and feelings of overall happiness, while negative thoughts or feelings regarding one’s body can lead to feelings of depression and/or anxiety (Chatzoupoulou et al., 2019). While the literature on body image and assessment measures for eating disorders have typically focused on young women, there is increasing understanding of the experiences of young men who attempt to achieve the cultural appearance ideal. Challenging not only the ways that men discuss their relationships with food and their bodies but also addressing the negative culture and messaging seen on social media, is important (Chatzoupoulou et al., 2019). Whether it is through individual conversations, participation in groups like The Body Project: More than Muscles, or examining the way you talk about and view your own body, we all have a role to play in challenging the harmful effects of negative body talk.
Chatzopoulou, E., Filieri, R., & Arzu, S. D. (2020). Instagram and body image: Motivation to conform to the “Instabod” and consequences on young male wellbeing. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 54, 1270-1297. doi:10.111/joca.12329
Darcy, A. M., & Lin, I. H.-J. (2012). Are we asking the right questions? A review of assessment of males with eating disorders. Eating Disorders, 20, 416–426. doi:10.1080/10640266.2012.715521
DeFeciani, L. (2015). Eating disorders and body image concerns among male athletes. Clinical Social Work Journal, 44, 114–123. doi:10.1007/s10615-015-0567-9
Goldstein, M.A., Alinsky, R., & Medeiros, C. (2016). Males with restrictive eating disorders: Barriers to their care. Journal of Adolescent Health, 59, 371-372. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2016.07.022
Limbers, C. A., Cohen, L. A., & Gray, B. A. (2018). Eating disorders in adolescent and young adult males: Prevalence, diagnosis, and treatment strategies. Adolescent Health, Medicine, and Therapeutics, 9, 111-116. doi:10.2147/ahmt.s147480
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