Helping Your Life Work
July 1, 2009
Volume 5, Issue 7

Is Something Eating You? (Part 2)

Last month, I wrote a brief synopsis about some of the changes that have occurred in the field of eating disorders over the past thirty years. While health professionals, schools and the media have made some positive changes, the incidence of eating disorders continues to be high. In fact, there seems to be an increased prevalence of disordered eating amongst males. Given that I have seen a number of men in my practice who have shared their concerns about body preoccupation, eating and weight issues, and given the limited information on the topic, I thought it warranted a separate article this month.

Years ago, the men who were identified as having food, weight and body issues were largely gay men or athletes.  But research has shown that all men can be affected. Research by Woodside et al in 2001, has also shown that men and women tend to share similar attributes that contribute to an eating disorder, namely: low self-esteem, feelings of a lack of control, interpersonal problems, difficulty expressing emotions, and possible history of abuse. To compensate for the lack of control in their lives, men and women share a similar desire to exert some control over the one area where they can wield it - their bodies. Where they differ may be in their ideal body type. While most women pursue a thin body, most men prefer to develop a more muscular one. And just as women can become addicted to exercise, diuretics, laxatives, etc. to keep slim, men may become addicted to steroids, protein supplements as well as exercise to add muscle to their frame.

Just as it does with women, eating disorders amongst men usually start during early adolescence, when many teens struggle with identity and self-esteem issues. One of the greatest fears for many young men is not measuring up to being a 'real man.' Given that the ideals of masculinity include power and control, a young man who feels that he lacks either may seek to bolster his self-esteem by bulking his body. The most popular movies for the typical 14-year-old male include those in which the proportions of men are significantly greater than the average male and significantly greater than what they used to be. If we compare, for example, what G.I. Joe used to look like in the past to how he will be portrayed in an upcoming movie, we can see that the "ideal" male body is completely unrealistic and unattainable. There are plenty of other examples in popular culture that promote the all-powerful male icon – the superhero (Superman, Ironman, Wolverine), war hero, (Rambo), and antihero  (Tyler Durden in Fight Club).

In the June 8th edition of the Toronto Star, there were two articles that underlined this relatively new phenomenon. One was about an undergarment for men called the "Core Precision Undershirt," which promises to "sculpt, tone and improve body mechanics." Dubbed the 'man-girdle' by the author, it's design will "lift and separate the shoulders", while it "supports and compresses the torso." On the flip side of this front-page article, was another entitled "Bad News for Brawny Men." In this, the author reports on a new study that suggests that too much testosterone in brawny men is "wreaking havoc on (their) immune systems – reducing white blood cell counts and (their) odds of beating infections." Furthermore, the study's author stated, "Our male ancestors who had a tendency to be very muscular got eliminated from the gene pool as time went on."

I mention these two pieces for a couple of reasons. The first is that these articles weren't buried in some inconspicuous section of the health and lifestyle section, but instead were deemed important enough to rank first and second page of a daily paper. Ten years ago, one could hardly imagine enough people being interested in them. But with Men's Health magazines lining most physicians' offices, the pursuit of the ideal male body has become mainstream. The second reason is that I find some irony in the fact that one's attempt to beef up and look stronger and healthier has, in fact, the opposite effect.

In last month's newsletter, I stated that men with eating, weight, and body issues may "feel too much shame and embarrassment to seek out treatment for what has long been viewed as a women's issue."  If you are a male struggling with food, body and weight issues, please don't let that stand in your way. Let's talk.

Barbara Fish, M.Ed.
Personal and Career Counsellor
416 498-1352
“Helping Your Life Work”

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