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

March 20, 2014

The 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.