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Males face unique challenges when seeking support for eating disorder recovery. They often are up against greater stigma than women, have fewer treatment options available, and struggle to find male peers going through similar experiences.
Collecting research on males with eating disorders has begun to be valued as a critical undertaking, but much evidence remains to be gathered. Furthermore, there is still a gender bias in the studies being done, which tend to target female demographics. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) launched the Collegiate Survey Project, a nationwide campaign that surveyed 165 colleges and universities to gather information about the rapidly increasing rate of college students struggling with eating disorders. The results revealed that student athletes are lacking sufficient eating disorder support, and more resources are needed by specific populations—prominently, male college students.
The following statistics demonstrate the scientifically backed picture presently available that documents how males—specifically college-aged males—are affected by eating disorders:
- In the United States,10 million men will suffer from a clinically diagnosable eating disorder (anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and EDNOS) at some time in their life, compared to 20 million women. (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011).
- In one study, 2.9% of 20-year-old males reported struggling with a clinical eating disorder (Allen, 2013), and another study of nearly 3,000 students on a university campusfound that 3.6% of males experienced eating disorder symptoms (Eisenburg, 2011).
- Various studies suggest that males with eating disorders are more likely to die than their female counterparts (Raevuoni, 2014).
- Men with eating disorders frequently struggle with co-occuring issues like depression, excessive exercise, substance abuse, and anxiety (Weltzin, 2014).
The Masculinity Ideal (and Other Challenges)
College is a critical period in life developmentally, when students first explore what it means to live more independently and how to take care of themselves. At the same time, competition among peers rages—young men and women alike are seeking to define themselves, and often do so by comparing their intelligence, social standing, and physical attractiveness.
Many male students develop unhealthy exercise and bodybuilding habits at college, in response to the pressure to fit in and stand out by attaining the ideal masculine body—one that is lean and muscular. Campus gyms become a site for body competition where excessive exercise and obsession with appearance is normalized. This standard drives males to manipulate what they eat and how they move in ways that often lead to the development of eating disorders and exercise addictions. The statistics are staggering: in one survey, 90% of teenaged boys exercised with the goal of bulking up (Eisenberg, 2012), and among college-aged men, 68% say they have too little muscle (AOL body image survey).
Chris, a recent graduate of Boston College who struggled with these issues at college, points to the “have it all” myth as a driving force in the development of unhealthy eating and exercise behaviors. This myth leads males to believe they can—and thereby, should—have “a vibrant social life, perfect grades, and the ideal body: the impossibly muscular, athletic, trim body.”
The summer before Chris began college, he started running over 70 miles a week. He was driven by dreams of joining the cross-country team at college. But trying to keep up that pace proved impossible. “Running, for me, was a crucial part of my identity and how I found value in my body, so having to slow down (and eventually getting injured) was a shock to my sense of self. College challenged me to focus on other aspects of my identity. I was more than a runner, and my body was good for more than just running.”
Chris was struggled to accept his physical build: “Compared to most of my peers, I’m scrawny. I’ve always been thin, but I had never felt so physically unattractive as when I started college. My school had a reputation for a beautiful, attractive student body, and I felt out of place compared to guys with more conventionally attractive (i.e. muscular) bodies. That dissonance had me bouncing between trying to build that kind of body for myself and engaging in unhealthy exercise and nutritional habits.”
Many college students live by a ‘work hard, play harder’ mentality. The pace of life at school, and the amount of activities to be involved in, makes it easy to develop and simultaneously ignore unhealthy behaviors. Chris reflects, “It was worryingly simple to develop negative attitudes and habits, like over-exercising, under-eating, and under-sleeping.”
Thomas, an Australian who is in recovery from an eating disorder that threatened his life when he was at university, explains how the standards of masculinity silenced himself and his male peers: “The very black-and-white conceptualization of what it means to be male (according to the masculinity ideal) diminishes the willingness for guys to speak out when they need help or feel that they have a problem. Asking for help has traditionally been seen as the antithesis to what it means to be a man.”
Thomas developed an eating disorder when he was just an adolescent. When he decided to pursue degrees at two universities – one in Sydney, Australia and the other in Tübingen, Germany – he did not anticipate how significantly his eating disorder would interfere with his studies: “Maintaining a healthy balance of work, social life, and just time to myself became a real issue.” He felt tremendously alienated and isolated as a male at university struggling with an eating disorder: “I was constantly bombarded by thoughts of inadequacy that centered from a deep-seated fear about who I was. A layer of doubt was cast over all that I did.”
But Thomas rose to the challenge of pursuing recovery while a student. Now a creative producer and eating disorder recovery activist, Thomas is dedicated to supporting other males struggling with eating disorders.
To learn about strategies and support for male students struggling with eating disorders and exercise addictions, read Eating Disorders Among College-Aged Males: What Helps?
If you or someone you know might be struggling with an eating disorder, contact EDRS to learn more about the services offered for college students through our Campus Companion program. You may also want to check out the post, How to Overcome an Eating Disorder at College, and explore what resources your campus offers, such as eating disorder awareness events, peer support groups, campus health and counseling services, and residence life programs.