According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 10 million males in the United States will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives.
That number is staggering. Even more startling is the fact that men who battle eating disorders are significantly less likely than women to reach out for help.
The media portrayal of the idealized male body has increased significantly in muscle size from the 1970s to present day. Take a look at the guy who made every girl swoon back in the 1970s: David Cassidy.
He had it all (or almost all): luscious locks, killer style, and a wholesome image from his prominent role on the television smash “The Partridge Family.” Now, take a look at what he didn’t have: washboard abs or B-cup pecs. By today’s standards his body is, well, average.
Now let’s feast our eyes on one of today’s biggest sex symbols: Channing Tatum.
His body is starkly different from the very relatable and wholesome-looking David Cassidy. Never mind the fact that his washboard abs are the product of high intakes of supplements and proteins and massive amounts of training. Today’s ideal body image has increased in muscle size so significantly since the 1970s that it’s largely unattainable for the average male.
With such a high standard for most guys today, it’s no wonder eating disorders among males are on the rise — especially in the gay community. Gay men contribute to roughly five percent of the general population. Yet, of the men who admit to having an eating disorder, 42 percent of them are gay.
However, unattainable body image is not the only culprit causing a rise in eating disorders among men.
Our tendency to pressure men into hiding their vulnerability is another contributor. Although our society has made great strides in loosening gender roles, many men still feel confined by the rigid expectations that they shouldn’t disclose negative or vulnerable emotions. Many men feel they must maintain a tough appearance to avoid being viewed as weak or powerless.
In one study, it was discovered that men who share openly about their weaknesses were actually viewed less favorably (by both men and women) than women who chose to share openly about their vulnerabilities (Collins & Miller, 1994). Although many people might believe they want the men in their lives to disclose more, research indicates that isn’t necessarily always true.
Most men don’t need research to prove to them that they frequently will be viewed as weak when they choose to express vulnerability. It’s something most men have battled their entire lives. As a therapist, I have listened to numerous men break down in tears as they have confided to me the pain it has caused them to suppress so much. One client said it best when he told me in one of our sessions:
I learned early on to not put my heart into the sports I played. If I did, it would break my heart when my team lost. And, sometimes, I would even cry. I hated crying. I felt like a (wuss). So I chose to not care as much about what I was doing to protect me from feeling the negative emotion.
His experience encapsulates what so many men are feeling. Don’t show your weakness, and if needed, numb yourself from caring or investing in important people or things to prevent your weakness from showing.
It’s a tough place to operate from if you’re a guy. You’re left with two options: choose to share weakness and feel emotions fully and risk being viewed unfavorably, or cut your negative emotions off and numb yourself to the world around you.
It’s probably no surprise that I’m an advocate for the first option. Here’s why:
The pressure not to disclose negative feelings or vulnerabilities results in suppressed feelings of inadequacy and shame. The bad news is that these negative feelings usually manifest themselves in some way — pornography addictions, sex addictions, an inability to have a successful relationship, and most currently, eating disorders. Combine all of this judgment of emotion with rigid gender role dogma, traditional male ideals, and some good old-fashioned body-image shame and you have yourself a recipe for a silent epidemic among men.
Unpleasant emotions rarely go away without some intentional action. Remember there are solutions other than participating in the problem.
Collins, N.L., & Miller, L. C. (1994). Self-disclosure and liking: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 457-475.
National Eating Disorders Association (2012). Statistics on males and eating disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-males-and-eating-disorders.