Men, Body Image, and Eating Disorders

By N, Murray J. | International Journal of Men's Health, January 31, 2002 | Go to article overview

Men, Body Image, and Eating Disorders


N, Murray J., International Journal of Men's Health


Health professionals have few resources to help them work with men who suffer from eating disorders (i.e., anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa) apart from the literature that focuses on females who suffer with eating disorders. This paper presents an analysis of in-depth interviews with eight men with eating disorders. These men provided rich descriptive information to document their plight with body image concerns and eating disorders. Further, it draws on their experiences of suffering with a disorder linked primarily to women. The paper emphasizes some critical issues confronting men and boys in relation to body image concerns and eating disorders while providing links with the social construction of masculinity.

Key Words: males, eating disorders, body image, social construction of masculinity

The research literature indicates that few men (5-10 percent) seek professional assistance for eating disorders (e.g., Drewnowski & Yee, 1987). Compared to women, these statistics are not significant in terms of problematic health concerns. However, these statistics do not provide a true indication of the extent to which eating disorders and body image concerns affect contemporary Western men. This paper, which is based on ongoing research with men suffering from eating disorders, will highlight some of the main issues confronting these men.

Arguably, men may be under-represented with respect to statistics on eating disorders (Andersen, 1990; Pope, Phillips, & Olivardia, 2000). The way in which masculinity is socially constructed within contemporary Western culture may underpin such a lack of information. This is particularly so with regard to the non-use of health services and problems associated with a lack of self-care for some men (Draft National Men's Health Policy, 1996; Fletcher, 1992; Huggins, 1998). Moreover, the common view that illness is more often associated with women and, in particular, the notion that eating disorders is predominately a female condition (Wiseman, Gray, Mosimann, & Ahren, 1992) may be factors why so few men who suffer from eating disorders seek help (Pope et al., 2000). Thus, fear associated with being labeled weak and/or feminine are possible reasons that account for this phenomenon (Drummond, 1999; Lloyd, 1996).

Some men's use of sport and physical activity as a means of weight loss must also be taken into consideration (Yates, Leehey, & Shisslak, 1983). Further, some men who suffer from eating disorders may be attracted to certain sports and physical activities due to their highly controlled lifestyles (Drummond, 1996, 1999; Pope et al., 2000; Yates et al., 1983).

This paper will explore issues relating to masculinity and men's health with respect to eating-disordered men. Essentially, the paper is based upon descriptive interview data with a small group of men who suffer from eating disorders. It will also draw upon the literature in the field of men and masculinity, including the literature on men, sport, and the body. The research methodology will be outlined to highlight the manner in which the study was grounded. Finally, major themes will be identified and discussed to illuminate some of the problematic issues surrounding men's bodies and eating disorders.

MASCULINITY, MEN, AND HEALTH

The relationship between the social construction of masculinity and men's health has been increasingly highlighted as a primary issue underpinning men's poor health status in contemporary Western culture (Courtenay, 2000a; Draft National Men's Health Policy, 1996). Possibly this relationship plays a part in the manifestation and maintenance of eating disorders among men. Further, conditions such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa have long been regarded as female-related disorders (Drummond, 1999; Pope et al., 2000). Consequently, male anorexics and bulimics have claimed that their willingness to seek professional help has been thwarted by societal ideals that include notions of gender-specific illnesses (Pope et al. …

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