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Do Male Athletes Have Body-Image Problems?

Justine Chatterton was a graduate student in sport psychology when she got stuck on a question. Why are eating disorders, she wondered, regarded as a distinctly “female” problem?

“I saw that as perpetuating a stereotype,” she says. By continuing to study only female athletes, researchers could be ignoring red flags among male athletes, she says.

Now a doctoral student in psychology at the University of North Texas, Ms. Chatterton is intent on learning more about the ways that societal expectations—as well as pressures unique to sports—shape how male college athletes view their bodies. By studying male athletes’ responses to these influences in an NCAA-financed survey of current athletes, she hopes to expand what she thinks is limited scientific knowledge on the topic.

It could well be that eating disorders, and other unhealthy behaviors tied to body image, aren’t at all a problem among male athletes. But without the research, there’s no way to tell for sure, she says.

After all, there are major differences in the messages women and men—athletes or not—take in from popular culture about how they’re supposed to look, says Ms. Chatterton, who played several sports in high school but did not compete during her undergraduate days at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  Women are supposed to be slim and feminine, an image that often conflicts with the athletic physiques that result from playing certain sports. Men, by contrast, are supposed to be strong and masculine—an ideal that, in many cases, is perfectly in line with their athleticism.

So wouldn’t it follow, then, that men and women would alter their behavior in different ways to conform to different standards?

That’s the question driving much of Ms. Chatterton’s current research, which she is conducting with her adviser, Trent Petrie, a professor and director of North Texas’s Center for Sport Psychology. (The two received a grant for more than $16,000 from the NCAA to pursue the research.) But it’s only the starting point: In an ongoing survey of what she hopes will eventually be more than a thousand athletes across all three NCAA divisions and a variety of sports, Ms. Chatterton and her colleagues are exploring a range of topics.

In the 11-part survey, athletes are asked about the messages they receive regarding body weight, as well as specific behaviors they might engage in—binge eating, for instance, or the use of laxatives—to control that weight. There are questions about their perception of their bodies. Do they feel bad about their appearance? Do they feel that they look different from other athletes? Other questions tap into missed playing time due to injuries, and whether that time on the sidelines led to unhealthy behaviors.

Because men and women face different expectations for their appearence, their behavior might also be different, says Ms. Chatterton, who holds a master’s degree in kinesiology from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where she did work at the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport. Women, for instance, might restrict their diet to stay slim. Men might over-exercise to bulk up.

The point, she says, is to figure out which athletes are internalizing those messages and then altering their behavior in an unhealthy way because of it.

“We need to know how many people out there are actually putting themselves at risk,” Ms. Chatterton says.

So far, about 600 male college athletes have completed the survey. Ms. Chatterton and her colleagues plan to collect data through May, and will analyze the results over the summer. They hope to have a report by the fall.

The ultimate goal (in addition to getting the study published in a journal, she says) is to help athletic departments come up with “interventions” for male athletes who might be at risk for eating disorders or other dangerous behaviors.

There have been moments of levity, though. When Ms. Chatterton and her colleagues were crafting the survey, they occasionally had to make adjustments to tailor the questions—many of which had been used only for female respondents—to a male audience. In the section about athletes’ dissatisfaction with certain body parts, for instance, a word change was clearly necessary.

Unlike some women, “men usually aren’t as dissatisfied with their thighs and butt,” she says. “So we changed it to abdomen.”

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