40 Grams of Manhood: Protein Powder and Masculinity


The sport of running is fraught with damaging body-image ideals—especially for women. A recent article by the New York Times titled “Who Says Allie Kieffer Isn’t Thin Enough to Run Marathons?” tells the story of an elite female marathoner struggling against and triumphing over preconceived notions of thinness and training held by the running community. The article points out how “whether it’s for a race or a wedding, women are told that they are at their most valuable when their bodies are their most diminished.”

Damaging beliefs about body image are intensely perpetuated in popular culture and not only for women. A 2015 study by The California School of Professional Psychology notes that “the way in which men’s bodies are being objectified by the media is catching up rapidly to what has been done to women’s bodies for decades.” The study says that men’s newfound obsession with excessive protein powder consumption is enough to constitute an emerging eating disorder driven by “an underlying sense of insecurity about one’s masculinity” that pushes men to long for a lean, muscular body.

Author of the study, Richard Archiro, says, “body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem and gender role conflict” make men an easy marketing target for untested, unregulated protein supplements that claim to aide in achieving an ideal ratio of fat to muscle; that is, to help one look like a “man.”

Gender performance is the driving force of the protein-powder fad. To achieve the normative, narrowly defined position of a “man” is to adhere to certain actions and aesthetics set forth by modern culture. Gender theorist Judith Butler describes gender as “a stylized repetition of acts” that results in a “constructed identity, a performative accomplishment” in which the individual “comes to believe and to perform the mode of belief.”     

The National Eating Disorder Association connects societal norms and the media to damaging ideas about body-image. For men, this means a pressure to look and act like the aggressively heterosexual, macho, emotion-suppressing, manly man valorized on television (and throughout modern society). “Being a man” is usually conflated with “being masculine” and tends to promote the most toxic aspects of masculinity while shunning more “feminine” qualities like empathy, tolerance, and emotional vulnerability. Emma Gray, a reporter for the Huffington Post, writes, “When we talk about toxic masculinity, we’re referring to the worst parts of our society’s prevailing definition of what makes a man a man.”

Bodybuilding is inherently a role-fulfilling sport focused more on achieving a physical aesthetic and less on furthering actual athleticism or bodily health. Going to the gym, lifting weights, and consuming protein powder can all be part of a lifestyle that places positive self-image and caring for one’s body at its center. Problems arise when they become part of an endeavour to fulfill a harmful masculine gender-role or chase an arbitrary physique at the expense of physical and emotional well-being. The actual science behind protein supplementation is highly contested, but nevertheless the need to suck down 40 grams of high-concentrate nitro-tech micro-filtered protein twice a day is not something that should be a defining characteristic of what it is to be a man.


**If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please consider these resources for support:

NEDA Helpline at 800-931-2237

text “NEDA” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741

DePauw Counseling Services at 765-658-4268