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Brian’s story

I was a freshman at Penn State University. I had never heard the word bulimia. I had never heard the term eating disorder. I was bulimic, but I had no idea what that meant.

What I did know was that binging and purging made me feel normal for a few moments. It told me I would finally be accepted by the other kids. My mind would flash back to the 13-year-old boy who was bullied in high school over his weight, who had his pants ripped off by classmates and thrown in the street because they were too tight on him.

No matter how many times I binged and purged, or what changes I made to my body, I could never see the real Brian in the mirror. Instead I saw a little boy unworthy of love or acceptance. I would hide my binging and purging from my friends and family by turning on the shower and faucets in the bathroom. I felt completely alone with my eating disorder. I felt like no one could understand my suffering.

The shame of that secret was overwhelming. At the time, I felt that men didn’t throw up their meals, men weren’t ashamed of their reflection in the mirror, and men didn’t talk about their bodies.

In my mind I was completely alone, isolated by stigma and gender stereotypes. To reveal myself would be to risk being called a “sissy”—to be made fun of and bullied as much as that 13-year-old child.

Brian Cuban, lawyer and author, wrote a best-selling book, Shattered Image: My Triumph Over Body Dysmorphic Disorder, that chronicles his first-hand experience of living with and recovering from 27 years of eating disorders, alcoholism, drug addiction, and body dysmorphic disorder.

“[A person] does not choose to have an eating disorder, eating becomes disordered by expecting one’s body to be what it is not.

Important facts to know about eating disorders

  • Eating disorders are biologically and genetically based.
  • There is a disproportionately high rate of eating disorders in the gay and transgender community. Among men with eating disorders, 42 percent identify as gay, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Learn more here.
  • Eating disorders are influenced by countless environmental factors, such as the media, social pressure, bullying, sexual abuse, and other types of trauma.
  • Males are less likely than females to tell someone about an eating disorder. “We males think that we can help ourselves on our own, but we can’t,” says Curtis, a senior from Wilmington, Delaware.
  • Substance abuse is common among people with eating disorders.

Guys and eating disorders

We’re long overdue to break the stereotype that eating disorders only affect girls and women. On average, 10 percent of people who seek treatment for an eating disorder are male, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Researchers have only recently begun to focus on eating disorders among men, but it’s clear that a lot more guys are dealing with this issue than we think.

“It’s so important to recognize that many men and boys do struggle with food, weight, and shape. This is the first step [in overcoming the stigma],” says Dr. Tom Wooldridge, co-executive director of the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders, and assistant professor in the department of psychology at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

Male body image and the media

From actors and athletes to superheroes and toy soldiers, we see unrealistic representations of the male body everywhere. We often think of women’s bodies when we think of Photoshopped images in the media, but it happens to guys, too.

Research shows that guys’ dissatisfaction with their bodies has risen dramatically in the past three decades, from 15 to 43 percent. “Males are under siege more than ever to live up to unrealistic media images portraying [them] as either unnaturally muscular or thin,” says Dr. Ray Lemberg, clinical psychologist and president of Psychological Pathways in Prescott, Arizona.

Students are feeling the burden too: 85 percent of you say there’s pressure on guys to look a certain way or to have a certain body type, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey. “The stereotypical male body is portrayed as average height and muscular with a six pack, broad, strong shoulders, and muscular legs,” says Taylor, a junior from Indianapolis, Indiana. “You either have to look like Schwarzenegger in his prime, or you have to be thin and look like Tom Cruise,” says Alex, a recent graduate from Forest Park, Illinois.

Guys’ eating disorders are underdiagnosed

When guys have an eating disorder, the signs aren’t always as straightforward or obvious as symptoms of anorexia or bulimia. “I work with many males who binge eat but are of normal weight. They may not get identified [by a health care provider] because their weight, blood pressure, and heart rate are normal, yet they are suffering with a food problem,” says Dr. Roberto Olivardia, clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

What are the warning signs?

According to a recent Student Health 101 survey, 80 percent of students say they have male friends who may be overly concerned about looking muscular, one of the possible signs of an eating disorder.

Other warning signs to look for:

  • Compulsive exercising
  • Rigid rituals about food or eating
  • Anxiety or stress about missing a workout
  • Feeling extremely preoccupied with only eating healthy foods
  • Binge eating
  • Substance abuse

“Men are more likely to emphasize lean muscularity instead of weight loss in their diet and exercise regimens,” says Dr. Wooldridge. “This means that treatment providers need to look for different signs when assessing whether a male patient is struggling with an eating disorder.”

Dealing with stigma and shame

Eating disorders are often wrongly thought of as a “feminine disease.” These gender stereotypes mean that many guys dealing with eating disorders feel ashamed and isolated. But it’s important to realize that you’re not alone. The first step to getting help can mean reaching out to a counselor, friend, or family member.

“I finally took that first step. I got honest with everyone I had been lying to about my eating disorder, most importantly my family and the treatment providers who were trying to help me,” says Brian. “What I feared most didn’t happen. I was not rejected. There was only love and support. When I started dealing with the shame of that bullied child, healing began.”

Batman used to be one of us

He was the only superhero without super powers, but now he looks more like The Hulk.

What happened to Batman?

Batman action figures

As you can see, Batman’s physique has changed drastically from 1940 to today. So much so that Dr. E. Paul Zehr, author and professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria, Canada, wrote a book about it. “Batman used to be portrayed realistically and with a very functional body,” says Dr. Zehr, who will teach “The Science of Batman” at the University of Victoria in 2016. The later images of huge, steroid-monster Batman are not only inaccurate but nonfunctional for most of the things Batman would need to do,” he says.

Batman body estimates, according to Dr. Zehr:

Early Batman

Modern Batman

185 lbs.

225 lbs (40 extra pounds of muscle)

20% body fat

10% body fat

Where to get help

Call a confidential helpline:
1-800-931-2237
(Monday–Thursday from 9:00 am – 9:00 pm, Friday from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm EST)

School counselor:
Make an appointment to talk to someone at your school.

Talk to your parent or guardian:
They can connect you with medical and psychological professionals who have special training and know how to help.

+ Find a therapist near you

“I finally trusted those who wanted to help me,” says Brian. “I stopped binging and purging. I stopped drinking and using drugs. I allowed people to love me. I allowed myself to be loved. It was a slow, step-by-step process. Sometimes there were steps backwards, but I always picked myself up and pressed forward, one small step at a time.”

+ Take a self-screen for eating disorders

Get help or find out more

Resources for males: NAMED

How to talk to a friend about an eating disorder: NEDA

A self-screen for eating disorders: NEDA

National Eating Disorder hotline:
(Monday–Thursday from 9:00 am–9:00 pm,
Friday from 9:00 am–5:00 pm EST)
1-800-931-2237

Recovery is possible: NEDA

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Article sources

Special thanks to Brian Cuban, lawyer and author of Shattered Image: My Triumph Over Body Dysmorphic Disorder, for sharing his story.

E. Paul Zehr, PhD, (www.zehr.ca) author of Becoming Batman (www.becomingbatman.com) and professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria, Canada.

Ray Lemberg, PhD, clinical psychologist and president of Psychological Pathways in Prescott, Arizona.

Roberto Olivardia, PhD, clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts.

Tom Wooldridge, PsyD, co-executive director of the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders (NAMED), and assistant professor in the department of psychology at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

Field, A. E., Sonneville, K. R., Crosby, R. D., Swanson, S. A., et al. (2014). Prospective associations of concerns about physique and the development of obesity, binge drinking, and drug use among adolescent boys and young adult men. JAMA pediatrics, 168(1), 34–39.

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. (2015). Eating disorders statistics. Retrieved from https://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/

National Eating Disorders Collaboration. (n.d.). NEDC fact sheet: Eating disorders in males. Retrieved from https://www.nedc.com.au/files/Resources/Eating%20Disorders%20in%20Males%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf

Shiltz, T. (n.d.). Research on males and eating disorders. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/research-males-and-eating-disorders

Thompson, C. (2014). Men with eating disorders. Retrieved from https://www.mirror-mirror.org/men.htm