Eating Disorders: Are Sports Putting Too Much Pressure on Their Male Athletes?
By Erin Walsh ('21)
A “female issue”
Though prominently regarded as a “female issue”, eating disorders have become an ongoing problem within the male athletic community.
According to a study conducted by the Eating Disorder Hope Foundation, “45% of males with anorexia are involved in an occupation or athletic team in which control of weight is important for good performance, compared with only 9% of females with anorexia.”
Due to body standards and pressure within highly competitive sports, many young male athletes have developed eating disorders.
Mr. Alexander Dingwall, wrestling coach and guidance counselor said, “A part of it can be the competitive nature of the sport and the competitive factor of your weight...If you are a wrestler you have to make a certain weight class so you always have to manage your weight; but when it gets to an extreme and you start cutting a lot of weight, you might not find success.”
Unfortunately, many male eating disorder cases go unreported because of the stigma surrounding the subject within the male athletic community.
According to Walden Behavioral Care, a clinic that specializes in eating disorders, “Males are at a higher risk of dying from their eating disorder than their female counterparts…because males are typically under-diagnosed or diagnosed much later in the course of the disease since most people aren’t even aware that males get eating disorders.”
Not wanting to be ridiculed or shamed within their community, these athletes fail to report their condition and fabricate excuses for their disorder as opposed to recognizing the extent to which their disorder may be impacting them.
Sophomore Eli Verney, a member of the SBHS wrestling team said, “I believe that eating disorders aren’t a female issue. Anyone can have an eating disorder and you can’t always tell.”
Factors contributing to eating disorders
Most sports require massive amounts of time and training in order to perform effectively; however, there are several highly competitive sports that also require participants to maintain a certain body standard in order to compete.
According to a study conducted by Stanford Children’s Health, several sports that take into account the appearance of its athletes include swimming and diving, bodybuilding, wrestling, gymnastics, running, dancing, figure skating, and crew (rowing).
The research study also delved into how these sports can affect its participants, noting, “Young male and female athletes who participate in sports that focus on individual performance, appearance, diet, and weight requirements tend to be at a greater risk for developing an eating disorder.”
Stanford Children’s Health mentions a factor that can increase the risk for a young athlete to develop an eating disorder is the misconception that being thinner makes you a better athlete.
Due to these distorted beliefs, many athletes committed to aesthetically judged sports feel that it is necessary to control their diets strictly in order to compete. These athletes participate in regimen training and frequent weigh-ins in order to keep tabs on their weight -- however, putting so much value within their weight has adverse effects to their health.
Walden Behavioral Care notes,“High commitment to intensive training regimens, disciplined eating habits, and strict attention to body composition – often with frequent weigh-ins and public disclosure (or teasing or shaming) of athletes’ weights – are key factors that can trigger eating disorders in sports.”
Verney agreed. He said, “Coaches want you to perform at your highest level, while being in the lightest weight class as possible; so it’s more or less expected to do what you need to do to make weight.”
Athletes can also be influenced by their teammates to participate in extensive weight loss methods.
According to the same Walden Behavioral Care article, “Teammates who practice unhealthy habits like chronic underfueling, flaunting fad diets, over-reliance on nutritional supplements, overtraining with no rest days, and training in spite of injuries role model disordered behaviors and contribute to a team culture that can ignite, sustain, worsen or endorse an eating disorder.”
In addition to teammates, parents have been known to influence how their children view food as well.
Joey Julius, a former Penn State football player who suffered from a binge-eating disorder, was quoted in an interview with Walden Behavioral Care. He said that when he was 15, he was accepted to the U.S. National Team camp. Though he was talented, the coaches told him that he would not be invited back unless he dropped weight. At this point, his father became obsessed with his son’s weight and put him on varying diets as well as diet pills. In response, Joey’s mental and physical health worsened.
On another note, Julius also shared how his disorder was influenced by the media because he was a well-known college football kicker. He commented on how humiliated he felt when he heard people on the media say he did not have the typical kicker’s body.
Even young athletes who are not as popular as Joey Julius still face pressure from the media to fit into societal body standards.
Mr. Dingwall said, “I think it could be that you see you have to fit the mold of another athlete that you’ve seen. If you are trying to be a wide receiver for a football team and you are looking at the top wide receivers, you think ‘Oh I need to be like Julio Jones or Odell Beckham Jr.’...But, when you look at yourself in the mirror you might not see yourself as fitting that mold.”
Critics say the media is just as harsh on men as it is to women when it comes to body standards. It is no surprise that some athletes develop disorders when the only body shapes represented within the media are on par with glorified standards. Though it is known these body shapes are nearly impossible to achieve, people still compare themselves to these images; especially those struggling with eating disorders.
Why is this issue going unnoticed?
Though there are many routes for individuals to seek help for their condition, there is still stigma within the male community to communicate difficult personal matters, such as eating disorders.