by Carolyn Hersh, LCSW
In the spring of 2018 major league baseball player, Mike Marjama abruptly retired from the sport to focus on being an ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association. He struggled with an eating disorder growing up and his move to working with NEDA was only to help save lives but to give men who are struggling a voice to hear that they aren’t alone. Mike Marjama is a reminder that eating disorders can affect anyone of any gender.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, about one in three people with an eating disorder in the United States are male. That’s roughly about 10 million males. There is a long-standing myth that men do not have eating disorders. A common misconception is that eating disorders are a women’s issue. As a result, many men are ashamed or may not even recognize that they have an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses with both genetic and environmental contributing factors. It is also important to be aware that just because someone has poor self image does not necessarily mean they have an eating disorder and vice versa.
Although eating disorders are about much more than body image, it’s hard to ignore the societal impact of cultural ideals of beauty and gender. Women are not the only ones impacted by gender ideals. The ideal male body includes large muscles and little to no body fat. Next to the Cosmopolitan magazines are the men’s magazines with models showing off their six-pack abs. I recall a time shopping with my fiance when we came across the packages for men’s underwear. There, staring me in the face, was a man with a Spartan-like body, doing his best to sell this product. I could see how men could feel intimidated, just like when women are walking through a Victoria’s Secret store. Many males they are taught at a young age to be ‘tough” and “not to cry.” Expressing feelings is often frowned upon.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, “25% of normal weight males perceive themselves to be underweight and 90% of teenage boys exercised with the goal of bulking up.” Male athletes can become hypersensitive to their bodies when sports such as running, gymnastics, or wrestling has them paying close attention to their weight. Many males are loathe to ask for help because it may make them appear weak or too feminine The fear might be “I am not man enough.” Unfortunately, health professionals may also not recognize eating disorders in males who are usually diagnosed later in their illness, which can lead to a worse outcome.
A few years ago there was a reaction to the athletic physique that had been so celebrated. The “dad bod” trend became a thing where it was okay for men to be more round in the middle. But even with this new trend it still puts out a message that there are only certain body types that are acceptable. What if you are round in the middle and round all over? Is that not okay? And isn’t any guy who is a father technically walking around in a Dad-Bod? It is great that there is more room for different bodies, but we need to expand our acceptance to all shapes and sizes. And not only accept different bodies, but also recognize that the body doesn’t define who someone is as a person.
How can you help a male that you know is struggling with an eating disorder and body image? Just as with females, we need to work on celebrating the men in our lives with what they do and not how they look. We need to let boys know it’s okay to show emotion. It’s okay if they do not look like Superman. Having bulky muscles or not having bulky muscles doesn’t define the strength of a person; especially their character. We need to accept people of all genders and all bodies in all their glorious diversity. It isn’t about your body that defines you, but who you are as a person. If only people could be more impressed with the contributions we put out there instead of the size of our stomachs. Hopefully, with more men like Mike Marjama coming forward, it will decrease the stigma surrounding this mental illness and more men will seek the appropriate help that they need.
Carolyn Hersh, LCSW and our other therapists are able to work with people of all genders at Eating Disorder Therapy LA.