An Increase in Male Eating Disorders Reflects Confusion About What Women Want

male eating disordersThe Atlantic article Body Image Pressure Increasingly Affects Boys caught my eye recently. Female eating disorders are well documented and quite common, but I’d always chalked that up to consistently intense pressure from the fashion and beauty industries. I was under the impression that boys were immune to eating disorders for the most part. 

That’s no longer the case. Approximately 25% of young people with eating disorders are now male. The trend reflects the same insidious process that girls experience – unrealistic images from popular culture beginning at a young age. There’s good reason to be concerned about this development.

new study of a national sample of adolescent boys, published in the January issue of JAMA Pediatrics, reveals that nearly 18 percent of boys are highly concerned about their weight and physique. They are also at increased risk for a variety of negative outcomes: Boys in the study who were extremely concerned about weight were more likely to be depressed, and more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as binge drinking and drug use.

However, the boys’ goals are quite different from girls’, who invariably are pursuing thinness. Of the boys who are very concerned about their weight:

50% want to gain more muscle.

35% want to gain muscle and lose fat.

15% want to lose fat only.

“There are some males who do want to be thinner and are focused on thinness,” Field says, “but many more are focused on wanting bigger or at least more toned and defined muscles. That’s a very different physique.”

What messages are being aimed at boys?

While the media pressure on women hasn’t abated, the playing field has nevertheless leveled in the last 15 years, as movies and magazines increasingly display bare-chested men with impossibly chiseled physiques and six-pack abs. “The media has become more of an equal opportunity discriminator,” says Lemberg. “Men’s bodies are not good enough anymore either.”

The message is also found in the superhero toys boys play with from a young age. In much the same way girls play with Barbie and absorb her (impossible) body as the ideal, boys are now absorbing very unrealistic standards for themselves:

In the last decade or two, action figures have lost a tremendous proportion of fat and added a substantial proportion of muscle. “Only 1 or 2 percent of [males] actually have that body type,” says Lemberg. “We’re presenting men in a way that is unnatural.”

 Among middle and high school boys, attempts to gain muscle are commonplace. More than a third drink protein powders, 6% admit to using steriods (!!!) and another 10.5% use other supplements. Physicians are most worried about supplements kids pick up at the local GNC, which are often just anabolic androgens packaged as “natural.” There are many negative outcomes associated with the use of these substances.

While eating disorders are complex, and not always focused on being more attractive to the opposite sex, research shows that both sexes have a warped understanding of the other gender’s preferences. 

The study Do representations of male muscularity differ in men’s and women’s magazines? (Frederick, Fessler, and Haselton, 2004) found that:

Men overestimate the degree of muscularity that is attractive to women, and women overestimate the degree of thinness that is most attractive to men. [This is] consistent with the thesis that sociocultural input influences body type preferences and beliefs.

Systematic comparison of popular magazines (Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, and
Muscle & Fitness) revealed that the ideal male body marketed to men is more muscular than the ideal male body marketed to women.

It always makes sense to follow the money when examining sex differences and preferences. Here’s how the mean scores for muscularity broke out, on a scale from 1-8.

Cosmopolitan: 4.26

Men’s Health: 5.77

Men’s Fitness: 6.27

Muscle and Fitness: 7.50

Note that the ideal in Muscle and Fitness is nearly double what women buy Cosmo to gawk at! What is the mechanism for this distortion?

Because bodily prestige competition involves only comparisons between, and evaluations by, members of one gender, the possibility exists that runaway processes will lead to divergence between what members of that gender consider ideal and the preferences of the opposite gender. This appears to have occurred with regard to both female
thinness (Davidov, 2000) and male muscularity.

Other physical traits the importance of which one gender may overestimate include breast and buttock size and shape, penis size, foot size, and height (e.g., Jones, 1996).

A 2007 series of four studies looking at the male muscular ideal in the U.S., Ukraine and Ghana found vast differences. American men were far more likely to be concerned about their muscularity. 

Percentage of American college age males who want to be more muscular: 90%

Percentage dissatisfied with their level of body fat: 50-71% (across studies)

The primary motivator was increasing sex appeal:

In the United States, many men desired increased muscularity for reasons related to increased dominance and attractiveness to women.

This is a crisis in self-confidence among young Americans around dating and relationships. It’s all the more tragic because the beliefs are distorted and founded on erroneous information. 

Tune out these detrimental cultural images as much as you possibly can. The truth is, if you are healthy and fit, you’re probably attractive to women right now, and starving yourself or taking steroids is not going to increase your appeal and will damage your health. Whether you’re naturally slender or beefy, respect it. Work with it. Optimize it. But don’t try to change it. 



Let’s Dish: What Are You Reading?

rosieSeveral readers have expressed an interest in sharing information about books. In fact, I’ve received requests for a HUS Book Club – we could all read the same book and then discuss it here!

I thought I’d start by sharing what I’m reading now, and what’s in my pile:

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion


MEET DON TILLMAN, a brilliant yet socially challenged professor of genetics, who’s decided it’s time he found a wife. And so, in the orderly, evidence-based manner with which Don approaches all things, he designs the Wife Project to find his perfect partner: a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey to filter out the drinkers, the smokers, the late arrivers. 

Rosie Jarman is all these things. She also is strangely beguiling, fiery, and intelligent. And while Don quickly disqualifies her as a candidate for the Wife Project, as a DNA expert Don is particularly suited to help Rosie on her own quest: identifying her biological father. When an unlikely relationship develops as they collaborate on the Father Project, Don is forced to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie—and the realization that, despite your best scientific efforts, you don’t find love, it finds you. 

I adored this book. I devoured it last weekend. The characters are delightful, flawed but earnest. I had many laugh out loud moments reading this book, and I believe Mr. HUS was not unhappy to see me close the cover, as my outbursts were not complementary to his reading of Bully Pulpit. :)

Highly recommended! Right now the Kindle version is only $1.99.

Foodist by Darya Pino Rose

In Foodist, Darya Pino Rose, a neuroscientist, food writer, and the creator of SummerTomato.com, delivers a savvy, practical guide to ending the diet cycle and discovering lasting weight-loss through the love of food and the fundamentals of science. 

A foodist simply has a different way of looking at food, and makes decisions with a clear understanding of how to optimize health and happiness. Foodist is a new approach to healthy eating that focuses on what you like to eat, rather than what you should or shouldn’t eat, while teaching you how to make good decisions, backed up by an understanding of what it means to live a healthy lifestyle.

Foodist: Using Real Food and Real Science to Lose Weight Without Dieting is filled with tips on food shopping, food prep, cooking, and how to pick the right restaurants and make smart menu choices.

I wrote about the food blog Summer Tomato earlier this week, and I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s full of great tips on how to live a healthy lifestyle without feeling deprived, and without wasting time on exercise that isn’t all that beneficial. She’s young and hip too – here’s her list of Tips for Drinking Less Without Your Friends Knowing:

  1. Altnernate drinks with water.
  2. Drink clear liquids and leave some in the glass – it will mix with melted ice.
  3. Order drinks that look like alcohol, but aren’t, e.g. vodka soda with lime.
  4. Be forgetful – abandon the occasional half full glass.
  5. Drink light beer.
  6. Master the shot spit. (This is kinda gross, it’s spitting a whole shot into a beer chaser.)

A few women have asked me how to handle this social situation, and Darya’s advice is far more comprehensive than mine was. (I suggested alternating clear drinks with water.)

Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume by Barbara Herman

Let Scent and Subversion take you for a whiff on the wild side of 20th century perfume.

Perfume has been — and continues to be — subversive. By playing with gender conventions, highlighting the ripe smells of the human body, or celebrating queer and louche identities, 20th-century perfume broke free from the assumptions of the prior century, and became a largely unrecognized part of the social and style revolutions of the modern era. 

In Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume, Barbara Herman continues her irreverent, poetic, and often humorous analysis of vintage perfumes and perfume ads that she began on her popular blog YesterdaysPerfume.com. The book features descriptions of over 300 perfumes, starting with Fougère Royale (1882) and ending with Demeter’s Laundromat (2000).

I decided to read this after hearing a fascinating interview with the author on NPR. She has studied perfume changes and fashions as they relate to political change throughout the 20th century. This book is next up. By the way, the novel Perfume by Patrick Suskind (2001) is one of the most memorable novels I’ve ever read. In it a man with an incredible sense of smell strives to bottle the scent of a virgin in 18th century France. 

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

New Yorker writer revisits the seminal book of her youth–Middlemarch–and fashions a singular, involving story of how a passionate attachment to a great work of literature can shape our lives and help us to read our own histories.

Rebecca Mead was a young woman in an English coastal town when she first read George Eliot’s Middlemarch, regarded by many as the greatest English novel. After gaining admission to Oxford, and moving to the United States to become a journalist, through several love affairs, then marriage and family, Mead read and reread Middlemarch. The novel, which Virginia Woolf famously described as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” offered Mead something that modern life and literature did not.

In this wise and revealing work of biography, reporting, and memoir, Rebecca Mead leads us into the life that the book made for her, as well as the many lives the novel has led since it was written. Employing a structure that deftly mirrors that of the novel, My Life in Middlemarch takes the themes of Eliot’s masterpiece–the complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failure–and brings them into our world. Offering both a fascinating reading of Eliot’s biography and an exploration of the way aspects of Mead’s life uncannily echo that of Eliot herself, My Life in Middlemarch is for every ardent lover of literature who cares about why we read books, and how they read us.

I only read Middlemarch a few years ago, and loved it. I also enjoyed the PBS dramatization. I just got this book today, and look forward to digging in.

For the record, I get almost all of my books from my local library. It’s easy peasy – read reviews on Sunday, get online and request desired books, wait for email telling me they’re in. I estimate that I’ve saved hundreds of dollars per year since I started doing this. This is a sound financial strategy for you 20-somethings!

What are you reading? What’s in your pile? Share the love. And let me know if you’re interested in the book club idea, and any book suggestions you have.


Do Less Attractive Guys Make Better Boyfriends?

One very common misperception I see among women is the belief that character is strongly correlated to looks. In particular, women tend to assume that a very good looking guy is bound to be a douchebag, while his far less attractive buddy is potential boyfriend material:


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Beware the Exception Fallacy

Reader Mary H expresses concern about having children in modern society. As an example of how bad things have gotten for parents, she cites the case of New Jersey teenager Rachel Canning, who is suing her parents for college tuition and a monthly stipend. After getting into trouble repeatedly with alcohol, she refused to abide by household rules relating to curfew, chores, and a boyfriend the parents found unacceptable. Four months ago, she moved out and now lives with a friend’s family.

“All her parents must have tried to do is raise her (with rules), and the girl sues them! Because apparently we live in the generation of selfies and entitlement.”

Wise Ana immediately replied:

“A good daughter who pays for her own college education with hard work and thanks parents” doesn’t make the news.

Mary extrapolated from this terrible family feud to conclude that young people today are awful – so awful she is afraid to have children! It’s a common mistake, known as the Exception Fallacy:

The exception fallacy occurs when data about an individual is used to draw conclusions about a group of people.

We are always in a hurry to classify people and groups and, when we have limited data about a group, we will often use what information we have, even if it is not statistically valid — and even if it is a single data point.

We’ve all heard stories that make us wonder “What is wrong with people?” But bloggers often deliberately fuel misimpressions by featuring tabloid stories about people whose lives are a wreck.

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The Male Biological Clock

male bio clockA recent study finds that the degradation of sperm quality over time carries sharply increased risk of mental illness for offspring of older fathers.

Men have a biological clock of sorts because of random mutations in sperm over time, the report suggests, and the risks associated with later fatherhood may be higher than previously thought.

Jeremy Dean summarizes the implications at PsyBlog. 

A new study has found that the children of older fathers have a much greater risk of serious mental illness.

The findings come from a huge number of people: everyone born in Sweden between 1973 and 2001 (D’Onofrio et al., 2014).

The researchers included over 2.5 million people, representing almost 90% of the population.

They found associations between older fathers and psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism and ADHD.

When they compared fathers who were 24-years-old with those who were 45-years old, they found that children of the older fathers were:

  • 25 times more likely to have bipolar disorder,
  • 13 times more likely to have ADHD,
  • 3.5 times more likely to have autism,
  • 2.5 times more likely to have suicidal behaviour.

Children born of older fathers also struggled more with academics and substance abuse.

Brian D’Onofrio, the study’s lead author, was skeptical of the results and ran many sub-analyses controlling for variables:

The researchers controlled for every factor they could think of, including parents’ education and income. Older couples tend to be more stable and have more income — both protective factors that help to temper mental problems — and this was the case in the study. But much of the risk associated with paternal age remained.

“We spent months trying to make the findings go away, looking at the mother’s age, at psychiatric history, doing sub-analyses,” D’Onofrio said. “They wouldn’t go away.”

“We were shocked by the findings. The specific associations with paternal age were much, much larger than in previous studies.”

Dr. D’Onofrio stresses that not every child born to a father of 45 will have these problems, but he suggests that the research should “inform individuals in their personal and medical decision making.”

As we know, women tend to be anxious about delaying childbirth too long, given the realities of the fertility timeline. In thinking about when to begin a family, a woman should consider both her age and the age of the father to minimize complications and risk.