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College Life and Men: The Unique Challenges for Those Susceptible to or Engaged in an Eating Disorder

Article Contributed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC & Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC

P1110329Though the common stereotype of an eating disorder sufferer depicts a young or adolescent female, we understand that these mental illnesses have a widespread impact on all people, irrespective of gender, race, or ethnicity.

The college years denote a time of change and transformation, a period that is characterized by a myriad of emotions as young adults bloom in their independence. Males are equally vulnerable as their female counterparts to encounter struggles during this transitional time in their lives.

Young Men Face Body Image Issues As Well, And It’s Rising

Young men may encounter a myriad of issues pertaining to their weight and body image while in college. While low self-esteem and body image concerns may be something that is commonly thought to be an issue women deal with, studies have shown this idea to be false.

Large scale surveys discovered that body image concerns among males have increased dramatically over the past three decades, with approximately 43% of men reporting dissatisfaction with their bodies [1].

These rates are comparable to women who also struggle with body dissatisfaction and reveal the similar challenges that men face concerning body image.

The Extra Stigma of Being a Male With an Eating Disorder

8258417759_31ace40e82_zWhat are some of the other unique challenges that men in college may be susceptible to? For starters, males suffering from body image issues and eating disorders have a tremendous stigma to overcome.

The National Institute of Mental Health reported that approximately one million males struggle with eating disorders nationwide, yet this is thought to be an underestimate [2]. With the limited availability of gender specific treatment management and minimal resources for males who are struggling with eating disorders, men continue to be under-diagnosed and under-treated.

How College Life Can Affect Men With Poor Body Image

College life and culture on campus may also evoke challenges for men who are susceptible to developing an eating disorder. Here are some of the aspects of college that can present with difficult circumstances for the male college student with or in recovery from an eating disorder:

  • Involvement with high-risk athletic groups: Student athletes, who participate in particular sports that emphasize weight and/or stature, may have increased risk of developing an eating disorder. This includes sports such as gymnastics, wrestling, jockeys, body builders, and runners.Additionally, athletic competition at the collegiate level can create further physical and psychological pressures to the male student, which may put them at increased risk for developing weight related or eating issues.
  • Sexual Orientation and Identity: College may be a time in which young men experience confusion in regards to their sexual orientation. As a result, they may find solace in weight loss as a product of restricted eating.Some males may elude the matter of addressing potential conflicts regarding sexual orientation with severe weight loss, which can inhibit libido all together [2]. While being homosexual is not in itself predictive of males developing an eating disorder, it can be an indication for a male to be more at risk of developing a disorder [3].
  • Muscle dysmorphia and muscularity ideals: Muscle dysmorphia, or the obsession about being inadequately muscular, is a subtype of body dysmorphic disorder that commonly affects male bodybuilders. With an overemphasis on male muscularity through media exposure, young men may feel inclined to be both lean and muscular to be socially acceptable.Men who struggle with these body image concerns may turn towards steroid or hormone use, which can increase risk for developing disordered eating habits [4].
  • Comorbid Chemical Dependency: Research has shown that substance abuse frequently co-develops with eating disorders, as these psychiatric disorders can be co-morbid. Studies have revealed that an estimated 57% of males with binge eating disorder struggle with substance abuse issues compared to 28% of females with binge eating disorder [5].While greater attention may be garnered toward substance abuse issues on college campuses, the use of drugs or alcohol could be indicative of the presence of food and body issues as well. It may be more socially acceptable to struggle with substance abuse, when in fact; minimal attention is given to eating disorder issues that may also exist.

Creating Greater Awareness And Reducing Stigma

The challenges that men may face during their college careers could increase their susceptibility to developing an eating disorder. Being aware of the unique struggles that men may encounter is an important aspect of creating greater awareness of these issues and developing prevention strategies.

The weight and body image concerns that male students will have are strikingly different from women and should be approached in a manner that addresses the distinct needs that men have. Greater understanding of these differences can be a helpful component of treatment measures for males, as well as breaking the stigmas that often surround these concerns.



[1]: The National Eating Disorder Association. “Statistics on Males and Eating Disorders.”

[2]: Strother, Eric; Lemberg, Raymond; Stanford, Stevie Chariese; Turberville, Dayton. Eating disorders in men: Underdiagnosed, Undertreated, and Misunderstood. Eat Disord. Oct 2012; 20(5): 346-355.

[3]: Morgan J. The invisible man: A self-help guide for men with eating disorders, compulsive exercise, and bigorexia. New York, NY: Routledge; 2008.

[4]: Blouin AG, Goldfield GS. Body image and steroid use in male bodybuilders. Int J Eat Disord. 1995 Sep; 18(2):159-65.

[5]: Practice guideline for the treatment of patients with eating disorders (revision). American Psychiatric Association Work Group on Eating Disorders. Am J Psychiatry. 2000 Jan; 157(1 Suppl):1-39.

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