Men, Body Image & Disordered Eating: Q&A with Leigh Cohn
Boys and men also struggle with body image issues, disordered eating, excessive exercise and eating disorders. But we don’t hear as much about these topics. And while there are many resources for girls and women and some progress being made in the fashion industry and women’s magazines regarding body diversity, we haven’t seen such great strides for boys and men.
That’s why I’m so pleased to present part one of my interview with Leigh Cohn, MAT, CEDS, who sheds light on these topics. Leigh is the publisher of Gurze Books, a publishing company that’s been specializing in eating disorder publications and awareness since 1980, and author of Making Weight: Healing Men’s Conflicts with Food, Weight and Shape.
What are some myths about men, body image and disordered eating?
The biggest myth is that only 10 percent of eating disorders cases are men. This oft-repeated figure was true twenty years ago but is not any longer. Recent studies have shown that 1/3 of eating disorders cases are among men.
Further, the concept that “fat is a feminist issue” is also outdated and causes stigma for men who do have eating and weight concerns. While it is generally accepted that about 80 percent of women would like to lose weight, about 80 percent of men struggle with weight issues: half wanting to lose weight and the others wanting to put on pounds of muscle.
Would you say that today there’s greater pressure for teenage boys and men to attain and maintain a certain ideal image, like a muscular and lean physique?
Absolutely! In the same way that women are objectified and sexualized in the media, men are too. Men are particularly pressured to be more muscular, have “six-pack abs,” or be thinner. Just as you can’t look at a rack of popular magazines without seeing thin and sexy women, brawny men are commonly shown naked from the waist up giving the impression that with just a little weight training, anyone can look that way.
Unfortunately, the young men who see these images don’t realize that they are viewing unreasonable and unreachable standards, that the models are often on steroids and HGH, work out obsessively, and have their photos digitally enhanced. These impressions are repeated in all media.
In addition to body shape pressures, men also face a barrage of media telling them that they are sexually inadequate, need to increase or decrease their hair (if balding try these products, if too hairy remove it with those products), and that in order to be successful, men in our culture need to make more money.
What kinds of consequences does this create?
The results of repeatedly receiving these kinds of messages are that men develop feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, insecurity, and low self-esteem. This also leads to disordered eating, poor body image, and fat fears—just like among women. Likewise, their relationships suffer.
In order to fulfill this ideal, many men turn to rigorous exercise. How do you know when you are engaging in compulsive and excessive exercise?
The signs include exercising when injured, being severely distressed and compensating for missed sessions, not compensating with adequate nutrition, missing important life events and functions for the sake of a workout, and resulting relationship problems. There is no clear rule of thumb for duration, although (despite recent government recommendations) exercising for more than an hour daily is unnecessary for anyone who is not in training and properly supervised.
What can boys and men do if they’re showing signs of compulsive exercise?
They will rarely recognize the symptoms on their own, but when confronted need to examine their reasons for exercising and look for ways to moderate it. When someone is addicted to a behavior to avoid painful feelings, those emotions and the causes of them need to be examined and new, emotionally healthier coping mechanisms need to be found. I recommend the book, THE EXERCISE BALANCE by Powers and Thompson for more on this issue.
Thank you so much, Leigh, for your insight! Stay tuned for part two of our interview tomorrow.
Again, like Leigh mentioned, body image issues, disordered eating and excessive exercise are all common among boys and men. So if you’re struggling, you’re not alone. Reach out to a loved one and consider seeking treatment.
For more information:
Male body image from the Australian Psychological Society
Eating disorders in men and boys from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
Eating disorders in adolescent males from Maudsley Parents
My interview with eating disorder survivor and advocate Patrick Bergstrom
What other questions do you have about men, body image and disordered eating? If you’re a man struggling with these issues, what else would you like to know?
Tartakovsky, M. (2010). Men, Body Image & Disordered Eating: Q&A with Leigh Cohn. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 19, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/weightless/2010/04/men-body-image-disordered-eating-qa-with-leigh-cohn/