It should come as no surprise that many men have an interesting relationship with food. I would be lying if I said I knew the solution to avoiding bad eating habits; there are often days that I fill my body with less-than-healthy foods to the point of feeling bloated and sick. But as many of us who share our thoughts and experiences on this site could agree, any attempt to better ourselves necessitates reflection on our own actions.
As I’ve attempted to change my own disordered eating, I’ve discovered the following links between my sense of masculinity and my eating habits:
1. Eating a lot is manly.
One of the most prominent issues is the association of eating large amounts of food with being manly. For example, we have the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in New Jersey, which combines overeating with competitiveness as masculine traits. This hot-dog eating contest presents a prime example of the ways mainstream masculinity dictates our thoughts around eating. The ability to eat dozens of hotdogs in a matter of minutes becomes an impressive feat, accompanied by interpersonal bouts of machismo.
But we do not have to look at eating contests alone to find the connection between manliness and eating. A popular show in recent years, Man v. Food not only sought to establish eating as a manly pastime, but also demonstrated man’s utter dominance over food through ridiculous challenges. Each episode would present the host of the show — admittedly not the most fit of TV hosts, but who exuded manliness nonetheless — with an eating challenge. Depending on his success or failure, he would determine whether Man or Food had won the challenge of the day, followed by an often less-than-humble scripted interview with some of the onlookers.
After watching these shows, many men feel as though they must also be successful at eating large portions of food. I have treated normal outings to a restaurant as though I were attempting my own eating challenge, ordering more food on top of already large meals. This mentality leads to overconsumption of very fatty and salty foods on a regular basis and can cause health issues.
You begin to question your decision once the meal is over and your stomach is bloated. In my case, I start wondering what I am trying to prove by eating so much food.
2. Consumption of protein and other supplements makes you more masculine.
More and more men are turning toward various supplements, most prominently protein, in order to “bulk up,” promote muscle growth, and gain energy. It is hard these days to walk into a convenience or grocery store and not see some company’s take on the fad, whether it be Gatorade protein-filled sports drinks, Starbucks protein-heavy coffee-based energy drinks, or the powder forms of various supplements.
The issue with these supplements is not so much the fact that they have become so popular, as they can promote better energy production and muscle retention during rigorous workouts and activities. Instead, the problem is that these supplements are so often misused and paired with very restrictive diets. Of course, ideally you would like to do MMA-style workouts where you burn a ton of calories and fat, but the truth is that, most of the time, men who take these supplements regularly are not working out hard enough or long enough to work off the excess.
A prime example comes from one of my college roommates, who did two very counterintuitive things in terms of his health and food consumption: he would drink extra protein shakes, saying that he wanted to “bulk up now” so he could “lose just the fat later,” and he would consume large amounts of alcohol with his friends. He had this notion that if he took not just the recommended amount of protein in the powder-to-shake form, but also extra amounts of said supplements, he would be able to work it all off at once and be very muscular in the end. He ended up getting pretty sick.
3. Men engage in emotional eating, too.
Although the stereotypical emotional binge eater is almost always a woman going through a breakup with a man, men also deal with emotional eating habits. Usually, men binge eat because they can’t appear too “feminine” and let out their emotions. Bottling up feelings becomes the manliest way of dealing with them — keeping them inside and “sucking it up” so that no one knows what you might be going through. Emotional binge eating can be caused by heartbreak in men too, of course, but it can also come from stress, depression, or anxiety, all things that men have a hard time discussing, especially with other men. Many men eat to manage their emotions, whether they admit it or not.
I am one of them. Growing up and facing bouts of stress and depression from constant teasing in elementary and middle school, I often made food an elixir for my pain, helping to alleviate whatever sadness I was feeling at the time. I would eat to the point that I felt sick, thinking it was curing my sadness and pain, but ultimately, I would be left knowing that, so long as I was chubby or fat, I would still get teased at school. It was, and in many ways still is, a vicious cycle of bottling up emotions, wanting to find a quick fix, and then feeling guilty about eating so much.
There are, indeed, other aspects of disordered eating that affect men on a daily basis, whether the result of targeted marketing that convinces men to eat a certain burger or drink a certain ten-calorie soda, or the way that heavy alcohol consumption is almost expected of a man drinking with other men. I would like to get a conversation started about what other men deal with in terms of disordered and otherwise negative eating habits. It is possible that, if we can come together and tackle the question head on, we can find ways for men who struggle with such issues to achieve radical self-love and enjoy eating again.[Headline image: The photograph shows a light skinned person with short black hair, leaning against a mirror and looking into it, with both the person and the mirror image visible. The person appears to be upset.]