Male Anorexia: Eating Disorders Hurt Men, Too

Male Anorexia: The Silent Killer

Western culture places great significance on the outward physical appearance of a person. For many, the way that they look determines their self-worth. This mindset is detrimental in many aspects, causing self-esteem problems, unrealistic expectations, and identity confusion for people of all ages. In addition to the many psychological implications of unrealistic standards there are serious physical consequences that occur as well. One such complication is anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder in which the person will begin to go on an extremely strict diet or simply stop eating altogether, frequently beginning a rigorous exercise program.

Anorexia nervosa is a disorder most commonly associated with females, and in particular, teenaged females. However, the preoccupation with this subgroup has masked the growing eating disorder problem that plagues the male population. An astounding figure of one million are diagnosed with this illness every year (Crosscope-Happel et. al., 2000). Even when male subjects have been isolated for study, often the methods and analyses used to assess the situation were inappropriate, being based on assumptions derived from study of females. While the troubles are similar, the causes of anorexia in males and in females are often very different. These troubles include family relationship difficulties, sexual identity confusion, low self-esteem, and actual overweight tendencies.

Family dynamics are very important to examine whenever attempting to discern the cause of compulsive behaviors. According to Nelson and Hughes (1999) the relationship between the subject and his mother and father are extremely important indicators of anorexia in males. They explain that a great majority of anorexic males have either a physically or emotionally absent father. This could be a result of divorce, the death of the father, or simply emotional detachment. They also reported that “the male anorexics had impaired father identification, as well as impaired ‘assimilation of male attributes and roles'” (p. 6). As a result of the missing father figure, many of these males tend to have extremely close emotional ties with their mothers (Nelson & Hughes, 1999). In contrast, the opposite extreme in family relations also contributed to anorexic tendencies in other males. Many of these males were, prior to onset of the illness, very success and goal oriented (Romero, 1994). The family environment is usually one of extreme pressure to perform and to attain specific goals. These subjects usually have a history of successful performance in either academics or athletics, and as a result of this success feel a continued need to attain praise. Perfection becomes the only option (Romero 1994). Many of these men report that “their fathers pressured them to excel in sports or to have a muscular physique” (Romero, 1994, p. 3). Additionally, the presence of another family member who is concerned with weight or is on a diet seriously contributes to anorexic tendencies (Romero, 1994).

Resulting from many of these familial pressures comes the problem of sexual-identity confusion. Reportedly nearly 21% of male anorexics have confirmed homosexual tendencies (Crosscope-Huppel, 2000). Society’s concept of the male body also contributes to sexual-identity troubles. Felicia Romero believes that the emphasis on a lean muscular body type in men can cause a reactionary response in those who do not meet that ideal (1994). She explains that “through the illness [the male anorexic is] retreating from the pressure to establish a male sexual identity” (p.3). As a result of the subsequent starvation, the male achieves a decidedly pre-pubescent physical appearance, as well as diminishing sexual attributes due to reduced testosterone production, reinforcing stereotypical homosexual images (Romero, 1994). Also, the opposite may be true. Crosscope-Happel, et. al. (2000) suggests that “males may think that dieting and exercise will allow them to feel more masculine and in control, which in turn, will lead to greater respect from others” (p. 2). Certainly cultural ideals for men place severe strain upon healthy self-identity and self-actualization.

Sexual identity confusion and family relationships are not the only factors that contribute to anorexia in males. As with female subjects, self-esteem issues are a significant factor in deciding how a male will deal with his body image. Very frequently these self image issues stem from pressures from the family as far as performance is concerned (Crosscope-Happel, 2000). As long as the family places pressure on the male, they have a need to perform and often develop unattainable, unrealistic goals, leading to a sense of inferiority and dissatisfaction (Crosscope-Happel,, 2000). In addition to the problem of failed objectives and perfectionism, many male anorexics have a history of being overweight before the onset of their illness (Romero, 1994). In fact, study results from Nelson and Hughes (1999) indicated that, of male anorexics, “66% indicated that they were terrified about being overweight; 61% reported that they thought about burning calories when they exercised; and 59% indicated that they were preoccupied with the thought of fat on their bodies” (p. 5).

I find it tragic that males have now begun to succumb to what was traditionally thought to be primarily a female affliction. As a result of many preconceived notions, many men are not properly diagnosed as anorexic and therefore never receive any treatment. It is profoundly tragic. I truly believe that troubles such as anorexia can be prevented. However, it all depends on a strong family relationship. In contrast to the dysfunctional relationships described by the researchers I have referred to, I believe that parents who correctly carry out their God-given responsibilities and roles in the family can significantly reduce the risk for anorexia in males.

Western culture places severe pressure on males as well as females to conform to what often seems and frequently is an impossible standard. If a man isn’t muscle bound with little to no body fat, he is not the ideal American male. It is important for families to be supportive of their children and reinforce that true worth does not come from what is on the outside, but that a person is defined by their character and their inner qualities. Additionally, it is necessary that parents teach their children that they are precious, beautiful creations of God, loved just the way they are. The secularism of today’s society has removed this vital aspect from most young people’s upbringing. It is absolutely imperative for people, if they are ever to have a correct view of their identity, to view themselves from their creator’s standpoint. Christians, especially, need to focus on what Christ has done for them and who he has made it possible for them to become.

I truly believe that the growing feminist trend has contributed to the increase in male anorexia. With the rise of single parent families, the presence of a committed, loving, stable father figure seems to have faded to the horizon. Even in homes where the father is physically present, he may relegate the duties of bringing up the children to his wife, preferring to pursue his career or social endeavors. When husbands abandon their families, pursue divorce, or simply do not show any initiative to care for their families, it is no wonder that young men don’t have a clear, healthy picture of what manhood means. It is time for men to reclaim their place as head of the family, not so that they can claim a place of power, but so that they can rightly discharge their God-given responsibility. However, ultimately, any change that will come in our culture or in our families depends on a spiritual revival. Therapy and counseling should be approached from the basis of Christ and how He longs to heal and restore the broken. Only then will we truly see healing in our society.


Crosscope-Happel, C., Hutchins, D. E., Getz, H. G., Hayes, G.L. (2000). Male Anorexia Nervosa: A New Focus. Journal of Medical Health Counseling 22, 365-371. [Ebsco Host], Available: Pages numbered 1-6.

Nelson, W. L., Hughes, H.M. (1999). Anorexic Eating Attitudes and Behaviors of Male and Female College Students. Adolescence 34, 621-634 [Ebsco Host], Available: Pages numbered 1-12.

Romero, F. (1994). Adolescent Boys and Anorexia Nervosa. Adolescence 29, 643-648 [Ebsco Host], Available: Pages numbered 1-5.

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