Eating & Competing: The Dangers of Female Athletes’ Eating Disorders

June 14, 2016 – Katie Lee

A few weeks ago I wrote a story on the hazards of female athletes and eating disorders. While it is more common for females to experience eating disorders and the accompanying side effects, it cannot be ignored that males also experience the consequences.

Beginning with anorexia, it is vital to note that this is not just a feminine disorder. Of the males who experience anorexia, 45% are part of an athletic team in which weight is important. As with women, some sports have more of an associated risk than others, as with figure skating or diving for aesthetic reasons, or boxing for making weight. One group of athletes known for their small stature are equestrian jockeys who are also well known for their disordered eating behavior such as skipping meals, vomiting, and laxatives.

While male athletes may feel the need to go the route of starvation, vomiting, or laxatives in order to slim down, most male athletes experience a reverse eating disorder. Instead of constantly viewing themselves as being too overweight, they seem themselves as being too underweight and scrawny, which leads to unhealthy diet activity.

Reverse eating disorders have a lot to do with “muscle dysmorphia” which is a way of saying that the person views their muscles in a negative way, they don’t look muscular enough in their own eyes. It can happen with other body parts as well, but in particular, muscle dysmorphia deals with athletes, especially those in bodybuilding. They view themselves as not ever being muscular enough, no matter how defined and developed their muscles may be.

Again, as with women, not all athletes, even those in high risk sports, will develop an eating disorder or even disordered eating. The risk factors for developing these issues are the same across any gender: interpersonal issues, low self-esteem, perfectionism…the list goes on and on. One of the main differences with males and females in relation to eating disorders is based in media pressures. While women are pressured about their weight, men receive pressure in the form of their muscularity.

Athletes are at a higher risk for eating disorders if for no other reason than the simple fact that they want minimal fat in the body and to build muscle. By doing so, it is believed that they will excel in their sport, and in many cases, this is extremely true. However, it is more important to be healthy and safely increase muscle mass, than to turn to eating disorders.

One of the issues that needs to be societally addressed is the stigma of a male having an eating disorder. Because of the high levels of stereotyping on males, eating disorders are viewed as a woman problem which leads to males being underdiagnosed, or undiagnosed at all.  Even in medical books or articles that are written, the vast majority of them are geared towards females.  Overall, eating disorders need to be taken seriously and consistently viewed across the board as dangerous and life threatening, rather than a ploy for attention and something the person will outgrow.

You can follow the author of this article on Twitter at @katieeliselee.

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