Can being too good be bad?

Can being too good be bad?

By Niamh  Ni Shuilleabhain


‘‘Oh my arms aren’t as big, as his, he’s gone ten abs, I didn’t know you could have ten.” –Palmer (2016)

orthorexia-trouble-with-kale-disorderIt would appear that obsession with diet, fitness and body image is no longer a predominantly female issue. This was one of the findings from my final year project on the phenomenon of Orthorexia Nervosa (ON). ON is a new eating behaviour disorder and involves obsessive thoughts about food and serious phobic behaviour about eating foods considered “impure” (Brytek-Matera, 2012). A person is considered orthorexic when their obsessive thoughts and behaviours surrounding food mean that they can no longer continue to live their normal lifestyle (Bratman & Knight, 2000). A key factor that differentiates orthorexia from other eating disorders is that those with orthorexia nervosa are driven by the goal of achieving superior health rather than weight loss (Martins, et. al, 2011).

The study set out to examine public perceptions of extreme health behaviours and experiment with methods of measuring Orthorexia. Overall, the findings from a predominantly younger sample indicated that participants had more moderate views of health behaviours, however males were significantly more likely to endorse extreme health behaviours as better for wellbeing. This was a particularly interesting finding as it went against the hypothesis, informed by the literature and incidence rates for eating disorders, that women would be more likely endorse extreme behaviours surrounding diet and fitness. Slightly earlier work in the area would suggest that engaging in health behaviours used to be associated with femininity and therefore not frequently practiced by men (Courtenay, 2000). More recent studies show that men are under increased pressure to achieve corporeal ideals making them more likely to engage in extreme diet and fitness behaviours such as taking supplements and bodybuilding (Davis and Scott-Robertson, 2000; McCreary, Hildebrandt, Heinberg, Boroughs, and Thompson, 2007; Daniel and Bridges, 2010).

plates x2 (1)So why this shift and what is causing it? In an attempt to explain the inflation of eating disorders, a number of researchers are looking towards cultivation theory, postulating that increased interaction with new medias will lead to internalizations of the messages and ideals they disseminate (Hesse-Biber, Leavy, Quinn and Zoino, 2006; O’Brien 2015). In my fyp, all participants, and most significantly men, were more likely to endorse extreme health behaviours in the questions that were presented via social media imagery compared to those presented in text format. This indicates that the use of imagery in social media and advertising may be normalising, promoting and perhaps even cultivating such extreme health behaviours and orthorexia. O’Brien’s (2015) research investigated the cultivation of eating disorders through Instagram. A content analysis of interviews with 8 eating disorder sufferers revealed that participants undoubtedly felt that their time spent on Instagram was closely related with the severity of their disorder. Palmer’s (2016) aptly named study ‘‘Poppin’ bottles, getting wheysted” used IPA on semi-structured interviews to investigate young men’s’ relationship with the increasingly prevalent male centred fitspiration content online. The study found that this content integrates the stereotype of the hyper masculine, increases body dissatisfaction, and puts pressure on men to achieve a proportioned physique.

Perhaps with the dawn of the social media age we are also beginning to see the start of a new era where male body image pressures and eating disorders begin to parallel that of women. Males, often void of the support structures put in place to help women deal with such issues, are becoming a vulnerable, yet neglected group, in need of effective initiatives to create awareness, support and treatment for these disorders, before the situation worsens.


Bratman, S., & Knight, D. (2000). Health food junkies: Overcoming the obsession with healthful eating. Broadway Books.

Brytek-Matera, A. (2012). Orthorexia nervosa–an eating disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder or disturbed eating habit? Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, 1, 55-60.

Courtenay, W. H. (2000). Constructions of masculinity and their influence on men’s well-being: a theory of gender and health. Social science & medicine,50(10), 1385-1401.

Daniel, S., & Bridges, S. K. (2010). The drive for muscularity in men: Media influences and objectification theory. Body Image, 7(1), 32-38.

Davis, C., & Scott-Robertson, L. (2000). A psychological comparison of females with anorexia nervosa and competitive male bodybuilders: body shape ideals in the extreme. Eating behaviors, 1(1), 33-46.

Hesse-Biber, S., Leavy, P., Quinn, C. E., & Zoino, J. (2006). The mass marketing of disordered eating and eating disorders: The social psychology of women, thinness and culture. In Women’s studies international forum (Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 208-224). Pergamon.

Martins, M. C. T., Alvarenga, M. D. S., Vargas, S. V. A., Sato, K. S. C. D. J., & Scagliusi, F. B. (2011). Orthorexia nervosa: reflections about a new concept. Revista de Nutrição, 24(2), 345-357.

McCreary, D. R., Hildebrandt, T. B., Heinberg, L. J., Boroughs, M., & Thompson, J. K. (2007). A review of body image influences on men’s fitness goals and supplement use. American Journal of Men’s Health, 1(4), 307-316.

O’Brien, K. (2015). The Cultivation of Eating Disorders Through Instagram.

Palmer, L. (2016). ‘‘Poppin’bottles, getting wheysted.” Exploring young men’s engagement with fitspiration content and its consequential influences on attitudes and behaviour. Journal of Promotional Communications3(3).