Anime, Eating Disorders, and the Body Image of Men

Let’s talk about men and eating disorders and, of course this being JP, anime/manga. Eating disorders result from what’s called body image disturbance, a fancy term that means you don’t like how you look. It’s well known that women struggle the most with this: 60% of American women suffer from body dissatisfaction. But 30% of American men suffer from it too (Chisuwa, 2011).  Negative body image helps cause eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and exercise. Yes, exercise–excessive and compulsive exercise–falls under the eating disorder category. I want to focus on the male side of this problem. This side of the problem is often ignored. In fact, male eating disorders remains less studied than female in Japan (Chisuwa, 2011). Of course, I can’t discuss this topic without speaking a bit about women too. After all, women are 10 times more likely than men to develop an eating disorder (Goddard, 2014).

The Differences Between Male and Female Eating Disorders.

Men and women react differently to the pressures that cause eating disorders. Negative body image, social pressures, gender roles, perfectionism, and media push on people to achieve often impossible ideals. Those ideals, however, differ by gender. Women feel pressured to be thin; men feel pressured to be muscled. They also focus on different body areas. Women fret about their butts and thighs more than any other parts of their bodies. Men worry about the upper body, their chest, arms, and abs (Cordes, 2016).  Male body ideals require strong muscle definition and a V-shaped, toned body. Female body definition requires thinness with large breasts and medium (not too wide!) hips.

These American standards have become global standards as American media pushed its messages into other cultures: “the United States possesses a Western culture that exerts enormous influence on the rest of the World” (Tan, 2013). These standards redefine traditional cultural body ideals. They don’t replace them, however. For example, the ideal male Japanese body image lacks the bulky muscles of the ideal American male, but it has still shifted the ideal. Unfortunately, Japanese men haven’t been studied as much as American men when it comes to eating disorders. But the few studies performed found Japanese men also underestimate their weight and muscularity. In a comparison study, male and female Japanese body esteem scores were lower than Americans, Chinese, and Israelis (Chisuwa, 2011).

Japanese Eating Disorders and Body Image

In a study from 1994, 60% of Japanese women surveyed admitted to binge eating at times and 15% admitted to vomiting occasionally. In fact, eating disorders go back further. Shutoku Kagawa (1683-1755) observed patients who would eat only small amounts of food for days, months, and even more than a year. When these patients were forced to eat, Kagawa wrote, they would vomit (Chisuwa, 2011). Considering this, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Japanese culture struggles with eating disorders as much, if not more, than the West.

In similar surveys of men, most expressed general satisfaction with their bodies; however, most desired more muscle, just like their American counterparts. However, whereas Americans wanted muscle to increase attractiveness, Japanese men wanted muscle to help their athletic abilities. They also didn’t want the bulky muscles Americans like. Japanese men also wanted to be a little taller, but not tall enough to look down on people. In Japanese culture, conformity to social norms remains valued. This conformity contributes to eating disorders.  Chisuwa (2011) writes about how children develop eating disorders when they attempt to conform to their parent’s pressure to lose weight or stay thin. Mothers in particular play a role in enforcing traditional body ideals. Teens even ask mothers for help with weight concerns and dieting.

These cultural ideals of how a body should be extends to behavior. Appearance, behavior, and people’s perceptions entangle into three categories of male ideals that each contribute to male body problems across Japanese and American culture.

Categories of Male Ideals

Although there are 4 categories of masculinity, each have different subcategories of men. This chart comes from Yue Tan’s analysis of men’s lifestyle magazines from various cultures in 2013.

Vigorous and Macho1. Tough and Macho. With a traditional cowboyish look and temperament, the model is muscular in physique and determined in facial expression.
The sharp, angular lines of his face speak of toughness and resolution. With tanned skin, in leather or cowboy clothes, the model appears nomadically unkempt, strong-willed and lion-hearted.2. Vigorous and sunny. Like a boy next door, the model often wears a coy, innocent, and brilliant smile. His skin is tanned. His clothing is sporty and
casual. His look and posture are those of someone who is amiable and easy-going.
Refined and Sophisticated3. Refined and Gentle. With the look of a well-learned intellectual, the model
appears cultured, polite, graceful, and good-mannered. He is often dressed in
preppy style (e.g. shirts, argyle sweaters, etc) and wears glasses. His hair is always neat and tidy, and his appearance is always clean and classic.
4. Stern and Sophisticated. With a confident and firm look, the model impresses the viewers as mature and reliable. He is dressed in formal attire (usually suits).
Trendy and Cool5. Trendy and Cool. Clothed and accessorized in the latest fashion, the model is likely to stand in a provocative posture and displays a freedom-loving and rebellious temperament. His facial expression is either numb or aloof, thereby creating a sense of distance between him and his viewers. He often leers at people and assumes the attitude of indifference and scorn.
Other6. Sensual and Sexy. Often in sexually arousing attire or revealing, tight clothes such as swimming suit and underwear, the model usually looks away from the camera and refrains from appearing smart and sophisticated or springy and sunny. His facial expression and posture—such as caressing his own body—often seem unnatural because they are contrived to seduce his viewers and arouse their sexual desire.
7. Androgynous. With exquisite features, the model dresses and behaves in a more feminine way or wears makeup. He appears in a more delicate, meek, and dependent posture.

Men are expected to sort themselves into these categories. Each ideal has its own body types to achieve, and all of which are not easily attainable by men with school, jobs, and family. Despite having multiple categories, the macho category retains the most focus. The American male ideal focuses on aggression, violence, and big muscles.

Think about typical American action films. A male hero, usually heavily muscled, uses violence to win the day. This links the macho category, muscles, and violence together. Male characters in general are more likely than female characters to be aggressive in media. This contributes to men’s feelings of inadequacy. Few can be James Bond. Strangely, when it comes to sexualized images of women in the media, this too has been shown in studies to increase men’s negative perception of themselves (Tayler, 2016). Violent stories with sexuality make men feel worse about their bodies according to Tayler (2016):

“It is possible that very violent images may be seen as more unsettling and threatening, or they may cause viewers to feel alienated from the stereotypical  masculinity with which such violence may be associated.”

Modern masculinity is designed to foster this negative body image through relentless media messages found in movies and in advertising. In the 1980s, Western masculinity saw a shift toward outward appearance as a method to sell products and fashions to men. While women have suffered from this type of marketing for a long time, companies began to target men’s insecurities in order to sell products (Tan, 2013). Dissatisfaction pushes people to consume products that claim to help them achieve the ideals the media sells. In turn, these messages and increased feelings of insecurity creates eating disorders and compulsive consumption. As I’ve pointed out, this isn’t limited to the United States. Japan and other westernized countries deal with this.

Anime and manga don’t help the issue.

Male Body Image and Manga and Anime

It’s taken me awhile to get down to this point, but anime and manga foster feelings of insecurity in men through the same mechanisms I’ve outlined. Manga and anime reinforce body ideals and the ideal categories of masculinity. They feature ripped, aggressive men doing their hero thing. Look at Ichigo and Goku. All of then are chiseled. Beautiful anime girls contribute to the feelings of inadequacy. Although, waifuism acts as a release valve for those who lack confidence to approach women in reality. But the retreat from the physical world proves the power of media’s messages. Waifuism can leave women feeling inadequate just as pornography does.

Sometimes obesity, another eating disorder according to medicine’s view, results from how media pushes on insecurities. Some people use food to escape their insecurities instead of trying to achieve the media’s ideals. It serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Waifuism and heavy anime consumption does the same thing. They came from a negative self image (there are exceptions to this). In all cases, you are still giving into the messages of consumption–which is the final goal of marketers. Content people don’t consume as much as those who are dissatisfied with themselves. Consumption leaves a hit of dopamine, the feel-good brain chemical, but it is short lasting and requires more consumption to achieve.

Anime and manga offers an alternative male idea to mainstream America, but for most this body ideal isn’t attainable either. We forget that models on magazines look as they do because its their job. They spend hours sculpting their bodies in the gym. Those of us who do other work can’t take the necessary time to exercise and eat as needed to attain the look. Manga and anime model their characters off of these body and from people like Bruce Lee, who made martial arts and fitness his life. However, you will see just as many anime heroes that have thin “nerdy” body types. They aren’t muscled or ripped. They are a thin, normal. However, you rarely see husky men as main protagonists. They are usually supporting cast, like Naruto’s Choiji Akimichi. But alternative body types do exist, even though most shonen action heroes end up ripped like Bruce Lee or hulking like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Knowing it’s all fantasy and not attainable blunts the messages’ influence, but contentment with oneself is tough to achieve. Even if you reach it, it can be lost without vigilance. Negative body image remains among the most powerful forces in marketing. People who are content don’t want or need as much, and they value what they have, which reduces their need to buy the newest and shiniest. Because of this, our economy doesn’t want us feeling content. Anime and manga doesn’t collude with marketers to make men and women feel inadequate.

Rather, it is a subtle momentum in how everyone thinks. Heroes need to be strong. Muscles mean strength. The connection was innocent in the age before consumerism and mass media. It was maybe even useful, but now the connections foster negative body images and lead people to eating disorders.

The pressures trouble me. It’s not like we can completely disconnect from media. After all, we enjoy anime and manga. Marketing in western countries is everywhere. People pay companies to market for them. That’s what you are doing when you wear a Nike shirt. We can’t avoid the factors that contribute to negative body image and eating disorders. The only tool I concluded that helps is mindfulness. Being aware of the messages peddled and how they make me feel helps me curb the desire to bulk up (not that I have a body that could).

In fact, emotions play a significant role in eating disorders. A problem called alexithymia appears in many cases of eating disorders. Studies estimate between 23-77.1% of anorexia patients and up to 56% of bulimia patients show symptoms of this problem. Alexithymia is the inability to identify, describe, and mange emotions and separate them from physical sensations. People with the issue struggle to overcome their eating disorders because they can’t identify the emotional reasons behind their eating disorders. Eating disorders act as a way to regulate the emotional response because of this lack of awareness (Beradis, 2011).  Stress is felt as hunger, for example. People who struggle with alexithymia “eat their emotions” without being able to pin down those emotions or regulate them without some involvement of eating behavior.

As you can see, healthfulness goes beyond the health of the body to the health of the mind and soul.

Male eating disorders and body image problems deserve more attention. Anime and manga can (and does!) work to reduce these problems by featuring stories that address them and by creating male heroes without the extreme musculature. Anime does a decent job of this with many of its heroes, but many shonen heroes eventually end up with muscles that few men can attain in reality. But it comes back to us. We need to take action to reduce our consumption of messages that hurt body image, such as men’s lifestyle magazines, and look toward developing a healthy attitude toward our bodies.


Beradis, Domenico & others (2011) Alexithymia, Body Image, and Eating Disorder. Body Image: Perceptions, Interpretation, and Attitudes.  135-153.

Chisuwa, Naomi & Jennifer O’Dea (2011) An Historical Perspective of Body Image and Body Image Concerns Amoung Male and Female Adolescents in Japan. Body Image: Perceptions, Interpretations, and Attitudes. 1-26.

Cordes, Martin and others. (2016) Male Body Image and Visual Attention Towards Oneself and Other Men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity. 17 (3) 243-254.

Goddard, Elizabeth and others. (2014). Cognitive flexibility, central coherence and social emotional processing in males with an eating disorder. The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry. 15. 317-326.

Tan, Yue and others (2013). The Construction of Masculinity: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Men’s Lifestyle Magazine Advertisments. Sex Roles. 69. 237-249.

Tayler, Laramie & Jhunehl Fortaleza  (2016) Media Violence and Male Body Image. Psychology of Men & Masculinity. 17 (4) 380-384