Toxic masculinity and its dangers are becoming more known, and you likely already know of examples embodying it, from nonsense that “men don’t cry” to certain things being deemed “gay” with a demeaning connotation. Yet, the intersection between toxic masculinity and eating disorders, specifically ones that revolve around fitness — think the avid gym-goer that won’t eat a bit outside of their macros for the day — is undeniable. 

Toxic masculinity boasts a message of what a man should look like physically, equally as much as it sends messages discouraging the prioritization of emotional and mental health. In fact, culture of suppressing one’s emotions and feelings, which is a crucial component of toxic masculinity, could not exist alone; it has to be paired with physical strength. In other words, the physically strong appearance of men is the outer shell, housing their equally tough inner-self, which they have been socialized to believe is necessary for manhood. 

To meet these physical and behavioral expectations, they grasp for things they can control. Food and exercise are examples of these things, and in my experience, turning to them for a sense of control can quickly turn into misuse or abuse and a strained relationship with two things that are needed to live a high-quality life. Furthermore, unless these behaviors are addressed early on as being actually harmful to holistic health, men will continue to engage with it under the guise that in doing so, they’re leading a healthy lifestyle. 

You likely already know that sufferers of eating disorders tend to be female. But, the usually lower number of males suffering from eating disorders is likely underreported. There are a few reasons for this, but a main one being the stigma around eating disorders that can lead to feelings of shame or embarrassment. However, I want to dig beyond this into the population of males who might not even think they have an eating disorder or on a path of disordered eating — guys who are pure muscle, live at the gym (or wherever their choice setting of workout may be) and track everything they put in their mouth. 

While current statistics say men make up 25% of those suffering from anorexia, there is reason to believe this number is actually higher because of the tendency for anorexia to be defined in its most narrow, outdated form as merely severe restricted eating. This doesn’t include atypical anorexia, which may still include severe restricted eating — which isn’t atypical at all — nor anorexia athletica, which is specifically relevant since its defining characteristic of excessive exercise is the feature also present in toxic masculinity. 

With toxic masculinity promoting a pursuit of strength, it is completely understandable that guys have turned to exercise, specifically weight training, to pursue this because it’s the most tangible avenue under their control. And I can’t dispute the benefits of strength training, nor do I want to. What I want to call attention to is the culture that encourages it to its extreme, more often than not also leading to disordered eating patterns, if not full-fledged eating disorders, and for all the wrong reasons. 

Reasons of physical appearance and wanting to feel stronger are not “bad” in and of itself, but when you are conditioned to believe that you have to attain a certain physique before you can be anything more, and that you have to be stronger because of some notion that you have to be ready to fight at a moment’s notice — all of which today’s males are conditioned to believe, in short — it becomes increasingly difficult to engage in activities like weight training that would otherwise be beneficial to your holistic health, without these detrimental underlying reasons. 

Even if one is truly pursuing weight training for all the right reasons, disassociated from toxic masculinity, this person is likely in the minority. It is incredibly difficult for people to fully abstain from societal expectations and social and gender norms because it’s human nature to want to meet them. Most people then, naturally, have fallen to the various pressures that exist, and will continue to do so until we change the norms, pressures and cultures themselves, rather than berate the individuals merely trying to successfully exist under them. 

A look into the thoughts men hold around their bodies and how exercise and fitness plays a role then shows that the wrong reasons discussed earlier — the ones rooted in harmful and largely unhealthful beliefs about what it means to be a man — are rampant. A study surveying the attitudes and beliefs among college men on body image and ideals found that they feel heightened pressure to have a muscular body. In addition to being preoccupied with building muscles, they were also very focused on obtaining a very low level of body fat, and the more dissatisfied they were “with their muscularity and body fat, the more they engaged in unhealthy behaviors.” 

It should come as no surprise then, that we’ve seen “bigorexia” enter the eating disorder scene in recent years. Also referred to as the Adonis Complex, this eating disorder is characterized by an obsession with one’s body, specifically a desire to build more and more muscle, known as muscle dysmorphia. Body dysmorphia is also a crucial component of it in that individuals suffering from it view themselves as “weak” or “small” even when they are very visibly muscular to others. This then leads them to engage in more extreme behaviors (e.g. anabolic steroids) to build even more muscle. 

We need to address the supplemental role eating disorders have in upholding toxic masculinity if we truly want to tear it down because doing so involves getting rid of this idea that to be masculine, a guy has to be jacked. We’ve been making some leeway with getting rid of the idea that an attractive woman is thin, lean or whatever word you like to use to get around the fact that you just mean skinny. Now it’s time to move away from expectations that guys look like Zac Efron. 

For one, the average guy does not have the time and resources that Efron does to put into his body. In other words, many literally cannot afford — time-wise nor financially — to attain that body. More importantly, this pursuit is leading to the development of eating disorders or disordered eating patterns in males, which are flying under the radar because the way the disorder manifests in them can be different from how it does in women. 

On the whole, guys shouldn’t have to face the pressure of being jacked, especially since it only serves to deteriorate mental health and lead them down a path, chasing something that is unsustainable without extreme measures. And the culture we live under today that says guys who embark on this path of rigid macro-counting and daily workout regimens are the epitome of health has to go because it’s largely false. 

The dangers of having an extremely low body fat percentage, for example, are more known today, as are the other harmful effects that come along with “bigorexia” behaviors, not to mention the toll it takes on your mental health to keep up with a such an obsessive and exhausting regimen around food and exercise. Let’s stop idealizing and praising a certain body type in men, so as to do our part in dismantling toxic masculinity. 

Nyla Booras can be reached at

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