Male Models and Eating Disorders

Contributor: Leigh Bell, BA, writer for Eating Disorder Hope

smilin'Jeremy Gillitzer died from an eating disorder five years ago. He was just 38 years old, but his body looked and felt 50 years older, a withered shell of the head-turning, muscular model he’d once been. If Gillitzer endured his tumultuous life for any reason it was to open the world’s eyes to men and eating disorders.

While women are the subject of most research, awareness, and news stories on eating disorders, societal focus is slowly turning to men’s obsession with food, exercise, and physique. How many men actually have an eating disorder is uncertain because many males aren’t admitting to what most consider a “female illness.” Still, experts estimate males account for roughly one-quarter of the some 24 million people with eating disorders in the United States1.

The Professional Burden on Appearance

Male models, like Gillitzer, have the professional burden to be beautiful, and for men, this means having a body just as chiseled as their face. Images of attractive men, many barely dressed, are increasing in magazines and advertisements, and they’re not only showing more skin, these models are more ripped than ever.

Male models lost roughly 12 pounds of fat, while gaining 27 pounds of muscle over a 25-year period, according to researchers2. The same research found models in recent Playgirl magazines had bodies that were impossible to replicate without the use of anabolic steroids.

How Male Modeling Has Changed

young handsome hipster modern man outdoorTo see this progression, look at Calvin Klein ads for men’s underwear. Mark Wahlberg took male modeling up a sexy notch in 1992 when he stripped down to his skivvies for the designer. Wahlberg was fit, sure, and the ads created major buzz, but compare his body to the latest image of Calvin Klein underwear: Justin Bieber. Bieber is slimmer and the advertisements much more seductive.

Or look at Hugh Jackman playing Wolverine in the X-men franchise. In 2000 debut, he was in great shape, but compare his physique to that of Jackman as Wolverine 14 years later, where you can almost count the sinews of his muscles.

Now, imagine you’re not only the guy seeing at these magazines or movies, but you’re the one who’s in them. ”The actual act of purging relieves anxiety—physiologically, it’s one of the things it does,” said Gillitzer in an interview before he died.

Media Has a New Target for Objectification

Media has long been blamed for the objectification of women, but it’s increasingly objectifying men and focusing more on male’s specific body parts, like bare chests and backs3. So much that researchers apply to men the objectification theory, which has long referred to women. The theory says both in personal interactions and in Western mass media, women find a sense of self in how they look and, as a result, feel like an object seen and judged on physical appearance.

This feeling can lead in men and women to a hyper-focus on looks and constant monitoring of one’s appearance, the Dakanalis research reveals. Men who are unhappy with their bodies and overly monitor their looks may be also be more likely to use harmful behaviors to “reduce the perceived body imperfections and achieve the male shape ideal.”

How This Pressure Fuels Those Vulnerable to an Eating Disorder

Obviously, pressure on one’s appearance alone does not cause an eating disorder — if so every model would have one— but it can certainly fuel a vulnerability to the illness. As ground-breaking researcher on eating disorders, Cynthia Bulik, says: “Genes load the gun, and environment pulls the trigger.”

IMG_1031Simply find on most any men’s health magazine a superbly muscled model surrounded by some of these recent headlines:

“Lean Muscle Fast”
“8-Pack Abs”
“Drop 10% Body Fat”
“Build Bigger Arms Fast

Bearing greater expectations of body fitness, these male models pass on to other men the pressure to be stronger, be leaner, and have a six-pack. It’s not unlike messages women receive from air-brushed, super-thin covergirls, and the resulting feeling is similar in both genders: “My body isn’t good enough.”

Setting the Bar Higher for the “Idealized Body”

Men’s body image decreases when they see images of attractive male bodies4. Media today includes many more of these images of men who are trading body fat for even more muscle definition, setting the bar higher for male models.

The word “metrosexual,” used to describe the guy who dressed well, smelled good, and actually “fixed” their hair, went in 15 years from buzz word to the standard for men, especially urban men. This expectation for men bore a growing market for male skincare products and men’s Spanx.

The Spornosexual

Add to this metrosexual man an athletic, ropy body earned by countless workouts and you have the latest male-model standard: the spornosexual. The term was coined by Mark Simpson, a journalist and author who also introduced the word metrosexual, to define the growing number of provocative, sexualized images of half-naked, super-buff men in mass media.

This trend gives more strength to the environmental trigger of eating disorders in male models, like Gillitzer, and perhaps, to men in general.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

How do you think the media has affected eating disorders and body image in males?


  1. Cohn, L., Murray, S.B. (October 1, 2014). The facts about males and eating disorders. Retrieved from Eating Disorders Resource Catalogue.
  2. Pope, H., Phillips, K., & Olivardia, R. (2002). The Adonis complex: How to identify, treat, and prevent body obsession in men and boys. New York, NY: Touchstone.
  3. Dakanalis, A., Timko, C.A., Favagrossa, L., Riva, G., Zanetti M.A., & Clerici, M. (2014). Why do only a minority of men report severe levels of eating disorder symptomatology, when so many report substantial body dissatisfaction? Examination of exacerbating factors. Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, 22(4), 292-305.
  4. A. Dakanalis and G. Riva. (2013). “Current considerations for eating and body-related disorders among men,” in Handbook on Body Image: Gender Differences, Sociocultural Influences and Health Implications, pp. 195–216. Nova.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 28th, 2015
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