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Not just a girl thing: ‘MuscleBound’ show to examine male eating disorders

Many college students realize that millions of women, bombarded by media images of supermodels and pressured by popular culture’s fascination with looks, are obsessed about their bodies. Students may also realize that this obsession can lead to anorexia, bulimia and compulsive exercise.

What many students may not realize, however, is that it happens to men, too.

Seeking to highlight the effects of body image and eating disorders on men, Mike Feldman, a New York playwright and actor, will perform his multimedia one-man show “MuscleBound” at USF tonight. The performance follows the lives of three men who attempt to alter their bodies by different – but equally destructive – means over the course of one year.

The free performance, put on by the University Lecture Series, will be held at 7 p.m. in the Campus Recreation Center Upper Gym.

Among men, the prevalence of disordered eating, especially the kind of disordered eating aimed at increasing muscle mass, has increased over the last decade, said Kevin Thompson, a USF professor of psychology who specializes in body-image disorders.

Thompson points to several general causes for this upward trend, such as an increased media focus on the ideal male body image and the increasing muscularity of sports and cultural role models. According to recent research studies, nearly 1 million men suffer from eating disorders, but Thompson said that the actual number is probably much higher.

“Many cases go unreported,” Thompson said. “Men are often in denial about eating disorders. It’s more difficult for them to acknowledge because it’s not as socially acceptable.”

Men also suffer from body image disorders to which most women are less subject, such as muscle dysmorphia, which causes men to feel that their muscles are inadequate no matter how large or defined they may be.

In addition to these problems, men also face the stigma that body image disorders are a woman’s problem, said Kim May, senior dietician for Student Health Services.

Although May said that her work with students suffering from eating disorders is mostly confined to women, she speculates that she would work with many more men if these problems carried less baggage for them.

“I know it’s out there,” said May. “They just might not necessarily come in to see me about it.”

Another issue facing men is that the media often focuses on these issues as women’s issues, and as a result men are much less aware of them. Creating more of a public dialogue among the male student community was one of the primary reasons for bringing “MuscleBound” to USF, said Anne Friesel, fitness coordinator for Campus Recreation.

“We are hoping that through this presentation these problems will become less taboo,” said Friesel. “Males struggle with body image issues, too.”

Feldman’s performance examines these problems through the lives of three characters, depicting their experiences with exercise bulimia, muscle dysmorphia and steroid abuse. These characters have a personal significance for Feldman – who battled anorexia and binge eating during high school – that transcends the usual relationship an actor forms with his character. These experiences inspired Feldman to begin the research for the project, which led to his discovery of another body-image disorder, muscle dysmorphia, that Feldman also suffered from but never knew existed.

“I went down the (list of) symptoms and I fit them to a ‘T,'” Feldman said. “I couldn’t believe that this actually had a name and that I had never heard of it before. I knew so many guys that had the same thing, and I was sure they didn’t know about it either.”

In addition to the live theatrical element of the performance, Feldman incorporates taped interviews with other men who, like himself, have suffered from these problems.

“At the end of the interview they all asked, ‘I’m the only one who thinks like this, right?'” Feldman said. “All these guys were saying the same thing, but they never talked about it and so they all thought that they were alone.”

While the focus of the performance is on these issues in men, the show is important for both men and women to see, said Iris Elijah, director of programming for the University Lecture Series.

“Women may recognize these problems in their brothers, their fathers, their uncles and their cousins,” Elijah said. “There is a need out there and a concern out there and it’s time we helped address it.”

Friesel hopes that, in addition to increasing the recognition of these problems, the performance will prompt students in need of help to take the next step by availing themselves of the mental and physical health counseling that the University offers, most of which is free.

“Maybe this presentation won’t give them all the facts about whatever they’re dealing with,” Friesel said. “But hopefully it will open their eyes to the fact that there are resources and people available on campus who can give them the answers.”