Men, Eating Disorders, and Chasing Impossible Perfection

Esther Marí
Esther Marí

By Z Zoccolante

Sex sells, regardless of gender. Men, like women, are objectified. I’ve had more than one friend remind me of how a guy’s dancing turns them on because it mimics how hot they’d be between the sheets. Hips don’t lie, right?

Still, we enjoy living in fantasy worlds. We like the escape. It’s common for couples to discuss their top three “freebees” where, if random celebrity #2 showed up at your front door, your significant other must give you a free pass to throw down with them in your bedroom.

The problem with fantasy and objectification is that they set an unrealistic standard. Trying to live up to impossible images of perfection can often prime us to develop an eating disorder.

Most people still think eating disorders are an exclusively female issue. However, this stereotype does not apply. An increasing number of boys and men show up in the eating disorder category. A 2007 Harvard University study showed that men accounted for 25% of people suffering from anorexia or bulimia. The previously reported statistic for men was 1 in 10.

Due to old masculine stigmas against showing emotion like “be a man,” “suck it up,” and “boys don’t cry,” men tend to keep quiet and don’t seek help for issues related to disordered eating. Male eating disorders can go undiagnosed and distorted body image unquestioned.

Another study in 2013 in IAMA Pediatrics surveyed 5,527 teenage males from 1999 to 2011. The study revealed that 17.9% of young men were extremely concerned about their physique. Women with eating disorders tend to be concerned with thinness, while men become concerned about their muscularity and athletic build.

Currently, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) calls men with eating disorders “a silent epidemic,” with 10 million men in the United States alone having a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives.

For every image of a thin, chiseled woman we see in the media, there’s an image of a lean, muscular man. In the past decade, the number of men’s magazines has increased, and with them the images that silently whisper to men what a “real man” should look like.

Brian Cuban is one of few men to speak openly about his 30-year battle with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), eating disorders, and drug abuse. Generally stated, BDD involves thinking about one’s real or perceived flaws for hours each day. It has the same obsessive fixation that characterizes eating disorders, and can often mimic and overlap patterns and behaviors.

In a previous article for Adios Barbie, Cuban states,

“I believe that this explosion of ads promulgating the perfect yet unattainable body, whether male or female, has led more of us to express normative discontent. It has become much easier and accepted to look in the mirror and feel something just isn’t quite right and take the quick fix to get what we perceive is wrong with our bodies, whether it’s a supplement, plastic surgery, or legal and illegal steroid use. That’s the route to acceptance, power, and fame, as we define it.”

As boys grow up, puberty can be tough for them as well as for girls. Suddenly, they’re bombarded with images and the idea that they must have a six-pack and muscles to be confident and sexy. Not only does sex sell, but it’s also a powerful motivator for hours of weight lifting and exercise, to get the hot body they see on the covers of men’s magazines.

Many men recognize that something is off-kilter with the amount of time and energy they devote to food or having a certain body physique, but our culture doesn’t make it easy for men to talk about body image concerns the way that women have been doing for quite some time.

So where do we start to bridge the gap?

The culture we live in dictates what the image of men and women should be, but since we cannot change the entire culture in one fell swoop, we can start with ourselves. In one of my favorite quotes, Mahatma Gandhi states, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Men, young and old: You don’t have to be the stronger, fitter, more muscled guy that supposedly lives inside you waiting to break free, like the Incredible Hulk.

Men, if your best male friend was engaged in disordered eating behaviors or battling body image issues, would you shame them for seeking help and peace of mind? I hope not.

Women, we must also reject the idea that men must always be strong and emotionless. If we want men to be free to be strong and emotionally accessible, we must encourage them to explore their minds and their hearts. We must allow them the space and compassion to seek help for their emotional needs without shaming or looking down on them.

For our culture to be strong all around, we need it to be filled with individuals who can take an honest look at where they are and seek improvement, help, and assistance in the areas where they are struggling. This must be encouraged across the board, regardless of gender.

To all of us struggling, in the silence or in the noise, we must value our health and our state of mind over what anyone else might say. If we are not healthy or happy, how can we enjoy and share the best parts of ourselves with others? How can we bring our amazing gifts into the world when we are not healthy? How will we know what enough is if we never allow ourselves to experience it in ourselves?

To men struggling with body image or disordered eating, know that there is strength in seeking help. Sometimes we equate asking for help with weakness. But the longer we refuse to reach out, the more time the disorder has to mess with our mind and health.

Getting help is a strong choice. You are the one who must live with yourself every day. Without peace of mind, what could be a great life could turn into a personal hell.

If you think you may want to begin working with a therapist but don’t know where to start, please read “How to Find a Therapist You Love.” It helped me gain the courage to easily make my first appointment.

For more awesome insight on this topic, please check out Brian Cuban’s video in this awesome article by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC, founder of Eating Disorder Hope.

We long for acceptance, confidence, and happiness, thinking they will be ours once we attain a certain ideal. But chasing an image of perfection will never fulfill what we desire. Seek treatment like a stealth ninja if you must, but start the search. The quickest way to working things out is to actually begin the work, right now, today.