Eating disorders are stereotypically seen as an illness that young, white, females develop. Whilst this is obviously an outdated myth and anyone of all ages, genders, and races can experiencing eating disorders, there are still a huge amount of people ignorant to the fact that many men suffer from eating disorders too and it is just as serious when men suffer from them as when women do.
Studies suggest that eating disorders are on the rise in men. However, it is also theorised that this may be because eating disorders in men are becoming less stigmatised and more men are coming forward and seeking help and treatment for their illness. Out of those with eating disorders, it is reported around 10% of sufferers are male, although again, these statistics are unreliable due to the fact that so many men do not come forward for treatment, and a recent study on a large university campus found that the female-to-male ratio of positive screens for eating disorder symptoms was 3-to-1 (Eisenburg, Nicklett, Roeder, & Kirz, 2011). As it says on the website MGEDT:
“Conflicting and poor quality data is one of the biggest problems in pinning down the full extent of eating disorders in the UK and indeed the world. According to Beat information from the Department of Health only shows how many individuals received inpatient treatment. This only captures only a very small percentage of cases, since as much as 50 per cent of treatment is provided by private clinics and only the most severely ill will receive inpatient care.”
Through large scale surveys it was found that in the past thirty years, male body image concerns have increased severely, with 15% to 43% of men being dissatisfied with their bodies; rates that are comparable to those found in women (Garner, 1997; Goldfield, Blouin, & Woodside, 2006; Schooler & Ward, 2006). In adolescent and college samples, between 28% and 68% of males of normal weights saw themselves as underweight and reported that they had a desire to increase their muscle mass through dieting and strength training (McCabe & Ricciardelli, 2004; McCreary & Sadava, 2001). (Statistics and sources taken from the NEDA site)
So why do boys and men get eating disorders? Just like with girls and women, the reasons are vast and complex. Bullying, abuse, dieting, feeling pressured whilst engaging in sport, having a career that demands thinness (such as modelling or acting), and diet culture can all be a catalyst in the develop of an eating disorder in men (and these are just a tiny selection of the things that can trigger an eating disorder). It is also shown that the media is having an effect too, and that exposure to male body ideals are causing men to compare themselves to these ideals and this is positively correlated with the drive for muscularity in men. The fact that we are living in a society that still places importance on gender roles and traditional masculine ideals means that males have negative attitudes towards seeking psychological help. In addition to that, we are not identifying eating disorders in boys and men:
“Doctors are reportedly less likely to make a diagnosis of eating disorders in males than females. Other adults who work with young people and parents also may be less likely to suspect an eating disorder in boys, thereby delaying detection and treatment. A study of 135 males hospitalized with an eating disorder noted that the males with bulimia felt ashamed of having a stereotypically “female” disorder, which might explain their delay in seeking treatment. Binge eating disorder may go unrecognized in males because an overeating male is less likely to provoke attention than an overeating female. This inferior image, among other things, contributes to the reality that 1 in 10 cases of eating disorders involve males. Particularly, for the disorder anorexia, up to one in four children referred to an eating disorders professional is a boy.” (ANAD)
Even though the stigma may be dissipating, it’s still there, as illustrated by the experiences I have been hearing about. One male wrote to my blog to tell me that his doctor told him he could not have anorexia because he could not experience amenorrhoea as he had no menstrual cycle to lose. Another man told me his doctor thrust a leaflet about eating disorders into his hands and offered no other information or support. It is extremely worrying to hear that even professionals are dealing with males with eating disorders in a way that is so dismissive and also shockingly ill-informed.
Men also find it extremely hard to talk to other people about it, because of the sense of shame they may experience in relation to having an eating disorder, and again, this is down to stigma in our society. They are afraid of being judged, and they are afraid of the negative reactions of friends who might laugh it off and dismiss it or make fun of them for suffering from an eating disorder, because it is still to some extent seen as a “girl’s illness”.
Eating disorders can also be harder to spot in some men because it is more likely for women to have dramatic weightloss, whereas in men their eating disorders can expressed through “bulking up” and hitting the gym, which is not seen as particularly suspect in a society so keen on advocating exercise and showing male body “ideals”. as lean and muscular. It is important to note that if an individual is taking performance-enhancing supplements in their attempt to become more muscular and then engages in weight lifting, they are at increased risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke.
It is of paramount importance that we recognise eating disorders in boys and men as much as we recognise them in girls and women. It is of paramount importance that we start treating them just as seriously and it is of paramount importance that we continue to reduce the stigma surrounding males and eating disorders so that those suffering will come forward for help and support, from their doctors, from their friends, and from their families.