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Eating Disorders: Are Sports Putting Too Much Pressure on Their Male Athletes?

By Erin Walsh ('21)

Photo courtesy of Wix

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.

In a study by The Foundation for Global Sports Development, Jason Arnold, PhD., a psychologist for the inpatient psychiatric and eating disorder program at Walden Behavioral Care, commented on the hesitancy within the male community to address eating disorders.

He questioned, “If it’s a woman's disorder, what does it say about them as young men?”

Questions like, “Is there something wrong with them? Does having an eating disorder emasculate them? Is it a direct assault on their masculinity?” often surface within the athletic community when a man admits to having an eating disorder.

When there have been cases where meal-cutting has been adopted into the culture of the sport as a norm, it is not viewed as a negative activity -- it is seen as a necessary step in succeeding as an athlete.

Mr. Dingwall commented on this belief saying, “It’s a part of that hyper-macho competitive atmosphere, you might not want to address that it is a problem because it’s something that’s a part of your sport. You always look at it as normal. As a coach, you might say that, ‘Oh one of my guys needs to drop a weight class because he’s getting his butt kicked’ and it becomes more of that competitive nature...that’s why it doesn’t get talked about because it’s seen more as a norm, it’s not necessarily a problem.”

Athletes who participate in these types of sports often feel the same way on the issue.

Sophomore wrestler Adrian Gaspar said, “In my case, it was me wanting to do it for the team. But sometimes people think that they can do better if they drop those extra pounds, but they make themselves miserable doing it… We take it like it’s a regular thing, not eating for a couple of days. That’s just how it is during the wrestling season.”

When asked if he felt that it was necessary to cut weight in order to compete in wrestling, he noted, “Yeah, yeah, you do it for yourself. You do it for your family. You want to do the best you can.

Control and shame are major contributors in the silence on the matter.

When asked if there was a level of shame tied to being a male athlete with an eating disorder, Dingwall responded, “I think so...You are admitting that you might not have control over a situation you thought you had control over.”

Student wrestlers agreed with this statement.

Eli Verney said, “For many people, there is shame in admitting you have a problem. What they don’t realize is that they shouldn’t feel shame for something they can’t control. They just need to speak up about it.”

What can we do to help?

Even with all the progress society has made to help equalize men and women, men are still expected to fit inside an idealized definition of masculinity where they are unable to effectively communicate their emotions with others. This definition is so limiting that many male athletes fear that they will be ostracized by either their elders or peers if they were to speak openly on their disorder.

In order to break down this perception within the male community, it is imperative that people cultivate safe environments where athletes and anyone afflicted by eating disorders can voice their problems without hesitancy.

Whether it be online, at home, or in school, the expression of these disorders will help normalize them to others and provide inclusive narratives for victims of eating disorders to follow.

Experts note that it is also important to remember that there is nothing wrong with exercising and participating in highly competitive sports. However, when someone is suffering from an eating disorder because of that activity, ignoring the issue will only worsen their condition. Seeking helping and showing support is the best way to aid them on their road to recovery.

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