Men suffering from eating disorders are typically aiming for one of two things: to make themselves smaller, or to make themselves as muscular as possible, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. New research out of the University of Sydney investigates what causes that divergence -- what makes men turn to anorexia or bulimia to make themselves smaller, versus the disordered eating and over-exercising behaviors that are seen in people with muscle dysmorphia?
One hypothesis is that these eating disorders are related to gender roles -- that anorexia sufferers might be more likely to endorse "feminine" gender tropes like sexual fidelity, modesty, domesticity, and investment in appearance, whereas muscle dysmorphia sufferers might be more likely to endorse "masculine" gender tropes like risk-taking, winning, self-reliance and emotional control.
Clinical psychologists Stuart B. Murray. Elizabeth Rieger, Lisa Karlov and Stephen Touyz worked with 24 male anorexia nervosa patients, 21 male muscle dysmorphia patients and a control group of 30 gym-going men. They asked participants to complete four self-administered tests: the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory (CMNI), Conformity to Feminine Norms Inventory (CFNI), Muscle Dysmorphia Disorder Inventory (MDDI) -- a questionnaire used to diagnose muscle dysmorphia -- and the Eating Disorders Examination Questionnaire (EDE-Q).
The study, published Thursday in the Journal of Eating Disorders found that muscle dysmorphia sufferers reported "significantly greater adherence" to masculine gender roles when compared with anorexia sufferers and the control group. In turn, anorexia sufferers reported greater adherence to feminine gender roles than the muscle dysmorphia sufferers or the control group.
So, what does all this mean? In a press release Murray stated that the results do not indicate "that the men with anorexia were any less masculine, nor that the men with muscle dysmorphia were less feminine than the control subjects recruited. It is however an indication of the increasing pressures men are under to define their masculinity in the modern world."
Recent studies indicate that male anorexia is on the rise -- approximately 10 to 15 percent of anorexia and bulimia sufferers are now male. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, it's not just varsity or professional-level athletes who suffer from muscle dysmorphia. A 2002 study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders suggested that the media's representation of the male body could be a factor in developing muscle dysmorphia. And symptoms of this disorder are not limited to eating and exercising behaviors -- in an April 2012 article for the Atlantic, eating disorder program coordinator Rebecca Wagner wrote that "many young men [are] using external agents like steroids and over-the-counter supplements to fix an internal problem -- body dissatisfaction."
Researcher Stephen Touyz believes that the new study's findings about gender role adherence will be crucial in future studies and treatment programs. He said in the press release, "This study, if replicated, may provide valuable information for researchers to develop better treatment programs for men with eating disorders."