How disordered eating is disguised and normalized on college campuses

Whether it be attempting to avoid the “freshman 15” or habitually eating the same foods in dining halls, Marrocco said disordered eating is often viewed as something only women face. However, they said they have noticed male friends around them attempting to adhere to an idealized version of the male body. This phenomenon, which is also pervasive on college campuses, can be just as damaging.

Marrocco said although it is wonderful to see how many resources there are out there for women who may struggle with body image and disordered eating, the lack of similar resources for men is jarring.

“It all starts with, like, ‘Here is the image of what men should look like.’ And it’s a very built person, someone who’s strong,” Marrocco said. “That becomes the standard that men kind of feel like they have to reach in order to be worth anything, in order to be noticed by other people, in order to find happiness.”

Dillman-Hasso said this idealized male physique could stem from the fact that men often are shown a distorted version of what the average male figure is supposed to look like when growing up and are never shown anything to the contrary as they get older.

“Teenagers idealized these really buff, bulky, strong, built people when they’re younger and they see people in pop culture and movies and TV shows and stuff like that,” he said. “I feel like that also creates unrealistic expectations. And it’s just like, people perceive that, like, this is what someone who’s attractive, this is what someone who’s healthy, this is what someone who’s made it, quote-unquote, is supposed to look like.”

In Swope’s dissertation, “Muscle Dysmorphia Characteristics and Body Dissatisfaction Among Exercise Science Majors,” she cited a 2015 study that stated 80 percent of college men admitted to some level of body dissatisfaction. Although this does not mean the same number of men engage in disordered eating trends, it is a number Swope said warrants a closer look.

Not only do the majority of college men feel dissatisfied with their bodies to some extent, but Swope cited a 2013 study Those with muscle dysmorphia — a form of body dysmorphic disorder that causes those affected to have a skewed perception of the size and shape of their own muscles, Tortora said — have higher levels of dissatisfaction with their bodies.

“The ideal body for males (similar to females) is unrealistic and nearly impossible to achieve and/or maintain without prioritizing diet and exercise over the demands of everyday life,” Swope said in her dissertation.

When men do engage in disordered eating trends, Swope said overexercise is common because it “kills two birds with one stone” and burns calories while growing muscle. She said other behaviors she has seen include the use of diet pills, laxatives and, less commonly, steroids, as well as undereating and overconsuming protein.

Despite the hold these behaviors sometimes have on college-aged men, Swope said it is less common for men to reach out for help. Part of this stems from a lack of awareness amongst men that behaviors they exhibit are disordered in the first place.

“In my experience, the vast majority of men who I’ve worked with who, like, eating concerns, body image concerns, ends up being a significant portion of our work together, did not originally come in with that,” Swope said.

For many college-aged men, habits that qualify or may be seen by those around them as disordered are sometimes viewed as healthy, Carli said.

“Any time I’ve seen this and brought it up, people were like, ‘Stop being a snowflake, like, it’s literally fine, I’m just, like, trying to feel better in my body,’ ” Carli said. “There’s a really fine line between taking care of yourself and just totally being disordered.”

Although only 3.6 percent of undergraduate men on college campuses screen positive for eating disorders, according to the 2011 study, Swope said the number is likely higher than is reported in studies for reasons beyond men not seeking help on their own or realizing they are exhibiting disordered symptoms. She said diagnostic criteria for eating disorders are gynocentric, meaning they reflect how women tend to present, not men.

“So if you think about anorexia, for example, one of the criteria is fear of gaining weight or becoming fat. Well, if men are restricting their diet in some way to achieve, you know, the ideal like masculine, super, hyper muscular, you know, ideal, they might not be fearing gaining weight. They want to gain weight. They want to gain muscle,” Swope said. “That doesn’t mean that they don’t have some type of disordered eating, but we’re missing it.”


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