Eating disorders amongst men: we are not talking about it enough. We are not doing enough to end the stigma against eating disorders in general, let alone for the male population that suffer with them. We need to raise awareness. We need to be having conversations about it. We need to be educating the general public about it. We need men on TV, in magazines, on the internet, on every social media platform, to speak out about their struggles and help others do the same so that they can get the help and the support that they need. The thing is, many men don’t feel comfortable talking about it with their closest friends and family members, let alone the public. In fact, they aren’t just uncomfortable: they are terrified, and this is because of the incredibly detrimental stigma wrapped around eating disorders that is magnified tenfold when it comes to the male population. And when people don’t get help, there’s an increased risk of them dying from complications due to their eating disorders.
Out of those with eating disorders, it is reported around 10% of sufferers are male, although these statistics are unreliable due to the fact that so many men do not come forward for treatment and so are not recorded as part of the statistics. 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 (you can read more statistics with references in my article Men Get Eating Disorders Too).
For this article, I talked to two men with eating disorders, a friend of mine, Leo*, who is a man in his mid-twenties from the UK, and Joshua*, an Italian-American, who got in touch with me via this website to talk about his experiences with his eating disorder and the stigma surrounding men with eating disorders.
Leo talked to me about how his eating disorder affects him in day-to-day life, and about the one and only time he sought help from a professional.
“I wake up every morning and the first thing I do is check the mirror and look at myself and think I’m fat. I will do it again after a shower and again once I’m dressed. I will do this throughout the day while at work if I go to the toilet as well. I try not to eat to much because in the back of my head is someone saying you’re fat, you’re fat, don’t do it. People at work have joked about me being fat, and I cannot get rid of them saying it over and over again in my head. I want to be perfect, I want to feel normal, and it probably started with the bullying at school and has always sat with me. I went to the doctors and explained that I didn’t feel normal and I hated eating food and I wanted to make myself sick and all I got was the doctor telling me that I need to eat to be healthy and we need food to survive, and that was pretty much it.”
Leo experienced disordered eating for three years, before developing a full blown eating disorder which he has now suffered with for seven years. He struggles with restriction, self-induced vomiting, and compulsive exercise. As you read, when he opened up about it to a doctor, he was met with dismissal. After describing his fear of weight gain, and sustained body hatred, his doctor chose not to explore this further and just told him to eat. I asked him about whether he would consider going back again to see if his experience could be different if he saw another doctor.
“I don’t go back to the doctors because it is embarrassing. I’m a guy and I have to not show weakness. I tried to cry for help and no one cared and so I shut all my emotion off towards it.”
Unfortunately, this is all too common an experience for men, and because of these negative experiences, men don’t seek help in the first place, or don’t go back again after being met with invalidation. Doctors are reportedly less likely to make a diagnosis of eating disorders in males than females (again, you can read my article “Men Get Eating Disorders Too” for references and more information). Not only is there limited training in eating disorders for medical professionals, but the stereotype of eating disorders being an illness exclusively suffered by white, young, females still lingers, and professionals are not exempt from absorbing the myths and stigma that surround eating disorders. Coupled with the damaging pressures from society telling men what they apparently should be like, people seem to have a really hard time accepting that men can suffer from such a debilitating illness as an eating disorder. These societal pressures, which include not showing emotion (or not too much, whatever that means), not crying, not needing help or support, are aspects of being a woman, and they are also supposedly aspects of being weak (because, just in case you are unaware of this entirely ludicrous concept, in our patriarchal society, being like a woman – and therefore being a woman – means that you are weak). On top of that, eating disorders are seen by some as obsessional vanity, whereas they run much deeper than that, and can stem from a variety of things (bullying, abuse of any kind, sense of worthlessness, deep insecurity, trauma, to name a tiny proportion of triggers). They are also a biological illness with genetic links. Your genetics play a part in determining whether you are someone who will develop an eating disorder or not. Those who understand eating disorders already know that developing one is not a choice, but this provides further and solid evidence for those who may not be able to fully comprehend the fact that there is no choice when it comes to mental illness. Still, so many people are still ignorant about mental health. Leo says,
“People look at it as a female disorder. I have mentioned it in conversation with friends and family, and I always get the same opinion – that it’s a woman’s disorder because they are weak or have issues because of how society sees them.”
Leo feels like he can’t talk to anyone about his eating disorder, because they won’t understand. He is terrified of the reaction that he could get.
“I can’t talk to people because they won’t understand. They won’t understand waking up every day feeling the way I do about myself and how I want to fit in and for people not to say I’m fat or chubby. I can’t talk to them or even want to talk to them because my step-dad, my brother-in-law, and I are always in competition in everything we do and I wouldn’t let them know I am weak. I don’t know how they would react. They will see it as a weakness and will think less of me. Even my mum wouldn’t understand.”
I ask if he thinks his mum would view him as weak. “I’m not sure, but I don’t want to risk it.” The concept of men (and women) with eating disorders being weak is so persuasive that Leo sees his own eating disorders as a weakness in him, but says that he doesn’t make the same judgement about anyone else.
Another issue we have to look at is the “ideal” male body that our society has created. Women face a huge amount of pressure to look a certain way thanks to our society, our diet culture, and the media continuously shaming women, telling us to lose weight, giving us diet tips, banging on about “health” 24/7, and showing us a disproportionate amount of slim, beautiful women who have been photoshopped to the nth degree, but whilst we do receive the majority of this pressure, we forget that there’s so much pressure going around that there’s plenty left over for the guys too. Men are being exposed to an increasing amount of images and messages pertaining to what a man “should” look like, and this is extremely harmful. Leo has been affected by this.
“Having 0% body fat and all the muscle in the world is the only way to fit in society for men. Women are seen as having to be skinny but men have to be both skinny and muscular.”
Whilst this is not a reality, and in general only men who are fat or very thin experience stigma around weight, the message has become so strong from the media that for some men, this is how they feel – that they and their bodies will not be accepted unless they look a certain way. The expectations that this is driving some men to have for themselves are unrealistic and unhealthy, and is having a dangerous impact on the mental and physical health of men.
Eating disorders can also be harder to spot in some men because it is more likely for women to have dramatic weight loss, 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 (this paragraph has been taken from my article “Men Get Eating Disorders Too”).
Joshua also talked to me about his experience with an eating disorder.
“My situation largely stems from my cultural love affair with food and how the outside world placed such an unnecessary stigma on what are “good” or “bad” modes of eating. I am an Italian-American, and as such, our lifestyle revolves heavily on cooking and family gatherings that centre on delicious dishes. It is a tradition and rite of passage to learn how to cook for many of us. This is an overwhelmingly positive facet of our heritage, but the media’s obsession with “thin” and “perfection” have demonized any sort of fascination with food beyond what they deem “healthy or fit.” Admittedly, I was heavy as a child and into my teen years – but with changes in my daily lifestyle and just growing, I evened out to what was my normal weight (which was apparently still slightly “larger” than the projected ideal). I still enjoyed any type of food that I wanted and never did I have to restrict. Naturally, as I got older, I became interested in finding a meaningful relationship with a girl. This was when the pressure of having to achieve that outrageous image of “true masculinity” began to weigh heavily on my mind, and my interactions with women in my age group reinforced these damaging gender stereotypes.”
Joshua was also influenced by the media.
“The problem is that “having abs” and looking like an actor/model is so much more than losing weight – it is about obsession to the point of illness.”
Joshua was shamed for his appearance when he became very ill during his eating disorder.
“Ironically, I never did achieve the appearance I aspired to even when I was dangerously skinny. I merely became an emaciated mess, which ended up working against me as I was told it “feminized” my looks and made many girls lose interest.”
Although no one should ever reach any weight, shape, or size by unhealthy means, this shows again the idea of an “ideal” body shape and size for men that has pervaded our society. Whilst no one is naturally emaciated, many men are naturally slim and can feel ashamed of being so. In fact, within a couple of weeks of being with one of my partners, he asked me, “Is my body okay? Am I too skinny?” because he was naturally slim. I had never even considered that this might be an insecurity of his, but it is more common than we think. Insecurity is rife amongst both men and women, and whilst this is damaging in itself, this can also contribute towards the development of eating disorders, which are severe and life-threatening. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and other restrictive eating disorders follow close behind.
“I find it so difficult to explain to anyone I meet (especially potential dates/prospects) that I am trying to heal from this battle. It is such a strange position to be put in – knowing that double standard of men not expecting to be concerned with weight or appearance (to be outwardly cavalier/macho) but still having to hide their true feelings when exercising themselves into oblivion for muscles/being defined. Gender roles and expectations for men are just as serious [as they are for women] – yet they fly under the radar as something that doesn’t happen and are laughed at by those from older generations.”
These myths, stereotypes, and stigmas need to become a thing of the past. We need to be talking about eating disorders more in general, but we also need to start prioritising the inclusion of men in every conversation that we have about it. We need people to stand up and talk about their experiences, but this should never have to be their responsibility in the first place. We need to educate ourselves and each other about the realities of eating disorders and how they affect men as well as women. We need to dispel the untruths and we need to be more proactive in challenging hyper-masculinity in our society. We need to help our men, and we need to help them to ask for support. If we don’t, we are going to lose them. If you are someone who looks down on men with eating disorders; if you are someone who sees them as weak, put that aside now, and take the time to research eating disorders. Keeping your mind shut to their suffering is costing them their health, their happiness, and sometimes even their lives. These are your sons, your brothers, your husbands, your friends. Each minute we continue to treat our men with eating disorders as weak; each minute we continue to dismiss them, we put their lives in danger.
*Names have been changed for confidentiality