Every night they fall asleep thinking about food and exercise. Every morning they get up thinking about food and exercise. Meals, calories, macros, and workouts planned for the entire day, and the one after that, and the one after that. They check the mirror the first thing after getting up, disappointed in the little progress they have made. The anxiety is crippling, telling them to cover up because they are not muscular enough, not masculine enough, and, overall, just not enough.

Eating disorders (ED) and body dysmorphic disorders (BDD’s) are not solely a problem women face, but there is an increasing number of men who are facing these disorders too.    

According to November 13, 2020 article “Understanding Male Eating Disorders” from the  website verywell mind, author Lauren Muhlheime explores how ED’s and BDD’s among males are traditionally not understood, and until recently, men have  traditionally not been included in studies, treatment, and symptom research at all. However, we currently know that there are many men suffering from ED’s and BDD’s, and the numbers are rising steadily. We also know that males, due to social stigmas, are much less likely to look for treatment ; therefore, they are under-diagnosed, under-treated and have higher percentages of deaths in comparison to women.

Even though “less than 1% of all eating disorder research focuses specifically on men,” it is known that BDD most often develops in adolescents and teens, and that BDD affects men and women almost equally. In the United States, BDD occurs in about 2.5% of males”  according to this  article from the Anxiety & Depression Association of America; in fact, every third person with an ED is male. 

The public are becoming more aware of  body image issues in men, too, as celebrities have gone public with their struggles around body image and the media’s pressure to be muscular and masculine in this culture of chiseled bodies on Instagram. For example, actor Jonah Hill went public on Instagram, asking people not to comment on his body, whether those comments were positive or not, because “[…] it’s not helpful and doesn’t feel good,” according to the MSNBC article ‘Jonah Hill’s body is his business. And here’s why we need to talk about it’.

The pressure to look a certain way has resulted in eating disorders that are normally associated with women. The most common eating disorders among men are Anorexia (AN), Bulimia (BN) and Binge Eating Disorder (BED). Furthermore, according to this article from the International OCD Foundation, the most common Body Dysmorphic  Disorder is Muscle Dysmorphia (MD). Essentially this disorder includes someone overvaluing appearance obsessively, believing they are not muscular enough, counting calories and working out excessively, consuming a strict regime of supplements, and in some cases, using steroids or getting surgery.  Many of these behaviors are accepted and supported in the lucrative men’s “health” industry, which even further solidifies the message that one must look a certain way to be considered masculine, and, therefore, better somehow.  

The desperate attempt to become more muscular, more masculine, more of a ’man’ is not just toxic, but also almost impossible.

So where does it all start? Body image disorders develop due to biological, psychological and social components. An example for a biological factor that can lead to ED’s and BDD’s is the so called “pubertal timing.” Boys who tend to go through puberty later  are at higher risk because their body has not matured early enough to “compete” with the more developed peers around them. They become anxious or depressed because they think they look “too skinny” or “too fat” or “too childish.” Advertising, movies, Instagram and the men’s health industry tell them they need to “be muscular” in order to “be masculine.” This message can spill over into family dynamics, relationship with coaches, how toys are chosen, and school conflict, etc. However, the desperate attempt to become more muscular, more masculine, more of a “man” is not just toxic, but also almost impossible.

Many social media users and gym goers are in their young adolescence, and they try to compensate their insecurities by obsessively working on their bodies because our superficial society shows them that looks are all that matters. Society also tells them to look and behave according to a stereotypical male gender role: strong, confident, tough, protective and athletic. Success, happiness and love are unconsciously connected with attractiveness, since only super attractive people are shown in movies, ads and on social media. And anyone who does not fall within the narrow stereotype, such as more feminine men, or men who openly express their emotions or vulnerability, are labelled as weak. Insecure or already mentally unstable people are not able to deal with the constant exposure to toxic masculinity without getting affected.  

Mental health issues that concern men and body issues are on the rise, but the attitudes regarding the definition of what makes a man are also changing slowly with increased awareness. The reason why increased awareness around eating and body dysmorphic disorders among men is crucial, is the harm that can come with those disorders; anxiety, depression, drug abuse and suicide are some of the outcomes.  

If you think you or a person close to you might suffer from either an eating disorder or a Body Dysmorphic Disorder, talk to a trusted adult and look for help with a counselor or psychologist. In most cases therapy and especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps. 

Images courtesy of: What is Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder? – Your Health