At some point in their lives, about 10 million men in the United States will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder.
Traditionally, males were believed to comprise approximately 10 percent of individuals seeking help for eating disorders. In recent years, however, mental health professionals have come to see this number as significantly underrepresentative of the problem.
While reports of body image dissatisfaction, along with the number of eating disorders, may be less prevalent among men than women, current research has also shown that eating disorders in males are clinically similar to eating disorders in females.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 33 percent of adolescent males engage in some form of unhealthy weight control behavior and up to 43 percent of males can feel dissatisfied with their bodies.
Michael Butchko – a third-year graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has worked for two years at UNL’s Counseling and Psychological Services with the Eating Disorders Treatment Team – said that men make similar evaluations about their body shape and image.
For men, these self-evaluations, and the disorders linked to them, are shaped both physically and psychologically by the pressure to conform to heteronormative ideals of masculinity. These attitudes are often reinforced in society by pervasive images of action heroes as well as in fitness magazines and athletics.
“Men from a very young age are told that in order to be a man and display masculinity, they need to not only display the characteristics of being competitive, hostile, stoic and aggressive, but also they need to be bigger, faster and stronger,” Butchko said.
Brett Haskell, athletic psychologist for UNL’s athletic department, said these ideals don’t take into account a person’s natural genetic factors.
“Often the culture around nutrition and body sculpting emphasizes appearance rather than the body’s performance to the tasks at hand,” she said.
Within the subculture of athletics, Haskell said an athlete’s performance can suffer when they attempt to align a perceived ideal that contrasts with their natural body composition.
Trends such as the use of general nutrition supplements, many of which aren’t approved by the Federal Drug Administration, often aren’t effective in improving performance and can even lead to some psychological and physical complications.
“Controlling and manipulating one’s body to force it to be something outside of its natural composition will often lend itself to body dissatisfaction and, ultimately, struggles with overall self-worth,” Haskell said.
Butchko added that when heteronormative ideas of masculinity become perpetuated among friends and social groups, this can bring dangerous consequences with how men relate to women.
A common trend among college males, Butchko said, is men using depictions given in pornography that promote a machismo image and become perpetuated among friends as a guide to intimate relationships.
“Men being dominant, men being aggressive, men objectifying women and women seen only as submissive… unfortunately these typically become implemented on college campuses,” Butchko said. “Then we do see an increase in sexual assaults, physical abuse and psychological abuse within intimate relationships.”
And when the need to maintain this ideal image pairs with latent issues of anger and frustration, this often leads to problems like substance abuse, excessive exercise, binge eating to “bulk up,” excessive alcohol consumption and other mental health concerns such as depression and suicidal thoughts.
Because traditional masculine ideals promote emotional restrictiveness, Butchko said, men often find it unsafe to display emotions such as sadness, affection or even love. Out of shame, this may prevent many men from acknowledging struggles with body image, eating and social habits because it can show signs of weakness and vulnerability.
For many, this often leads to an inability to cope successfully with these issues. Such latent emotional conflicts can also have a major impact on mental health, and often breed feelings of anger, frustration and a cycle of destructiveness to a person’s identity and their relationships with others.
“That’s the unfortunate thing, is that men, just like women, are vulnerable to try and strive for an ideal that it never quite attainable,” Butchko said. “And it’s never quite enough, and they keep continuing with these behaviors, and it just leads them down a path where they feel very isolated, feeling like they’re doing something wrong.”
But both Haskell and Butchko see this trend changing.
In the past 15-20 years, more men in general have been willing to come into counseling, Butchko said.
Haskell has worked to help athletes feel confident in their bodies and more accepting of their genetic framework and body type in order to maximize performance and prevent personally abusive behaviors.
Haskell, along with NCAA officials, has been working to promote athletes’ awareness of mental health resources and to show the need to ask for help as a sign of courage.
In addition to resources like CAPS, along with outreach presentations by the Eating Disorders Treatment Team, Butchko said groups are forming around campus to discuss these issues and provide access to resources.
One group, Men at Nebraska, has been holding regular meetings on Wednesdays this semester from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. at the UNL Women’s Center. Both men and women are welcome to discuss issues of how masculinity affects their everyday lives.
“There is a big correlation between what men are seeing, who their role models are, what they’re talking about with friends, and actually what they experience within themselves and interacting with others,” Butchko said. “We need more men having these discussions and having these conversations.”