Men's Bodies

Men are underweight, overweight and concerned about weight, just like women.

Posted Oct 09, 2014

Just as alcoholism was once considered a “man’s disease,” disordered eating, distorted body image, and addictive behavior involving food are often mistakenly thought of as women’s problems. But in fact, half the overweight adults in the U.S. are men, and it is estimated that up to 25 percent of people with bulimia and anorexia are men. The National Institutes of Health reports that at least one million men suffer from eating disorders.  A look at the professional literature on the topic shows that male eating disorders have traditionally been under-diagnosed, undertreated, and generally misunderstood.

While growing up, boys are often discouraged by parents and peers from showing feelings or displaying signs of weakness. They are more often encouraged to be physically and emotionally strong, “manly,” and able to handle problems themselves. Yet boys have just as difficult time going through adolescence and other stages of life as girls. Boys and men can have the same problems with low self-esteem, a history of abuse, and depression that often underlie disordered eating in women, but it might be much harder for some men to deal with these issues openly.

Historically, men haven’t been under the same pressure as women to be thin or “shapely,” so body obsession hasn’t been as strong a phenomenon in men. Times have changed, however, and body-building celebrities, male models, superstar athletes and even gym-body male dolls have helped change boys’ and men’s thinking about their health, fitness and appearance.

Many men now feel the same pressure as women to live up to an often unrealistic “ideal” body image. Unlike women, however, when men think about their bodies, they tend to be more concerned with their size and shape than with their weight. Some men at the gym may be as motivated by vanity as they are by health concerns.

More and more, men are the subjects of research that explores their relationships with food, though much more work needs to be done in this area for a better understanding of eating disorders and treatment options targeted toward men, and to find more ways to get men to open up about their food and body image issues. Most of the available research focuses on gender differences in attitudes and behavior when it comes to eating styles, weight control, and body image. Researchers are now calling for more studies that focus specifically on male weight history, addiction history, sexual orientation, body image ideals, and the effects of sexual abuse, media influences, depression and shame.

It is clear that men respond to many of the same emotional issues and societal pressures and experiences that underlie disordered eating in women. It is also clear that men and women have different opinions on everything from what constitutes a binge, and the reasons behind bingeing, to how they perceive their own bodies. While women focus more on their lower bodies—especially the waist, hips and thighs, men tend to focus more on their upper bodies—their chests, arms and abs. Men generally do not strive to be thin; more often than not, they strive to gain weight in order to be more muscular. So rather than engage in purging activities such as vomiting or laxative abuse common to women with eating disorders, they are more likely to use excessive exercise in an attempt to control their weight and body shape. As a result, men with food and body image issues may appear physically healthier than their female counterparts. That physical strength, however, can also serve to cover up their emotional vulnerability.

Reference:

Strother E, Lemberg R, Stanford SC and Turberville D. “Eating Disorders in Men: Underdiagnosed, Undertreated, and Misunderstood.” Eating Disorders. Oct 2012; 20(5);346-355.