Talking about men’s eating disorders isn’t something that we as a society do much of. Disordered eating in women has been in the spotlight for many years. Yet male sufferers may find themselves left in the dark.
Literature and support networks are often geared specifically towards women, yet men and boys can suffer from disordered eating just as women can. So why do we still see disordered eating as a female problem?
It’s Not (Just) For Girls
Disordered eating definitely isn’t just a female problem. Perhaps it’s thought of this way because we’re still adjusting to the idea that men are also affected. The number of men hospitalised as the direct result of an eating disorder is now increasing at the same rate as women. We need to collectively acknowledge that this is not a ‘women’s issue’.
Eating disorders are a serious mental health problem. Those affected often undergo considerable psychological distress alongside the resulting, and wide-ranging, medical complications. Like any mental health issue, eating disorders have no gender. They’re a human issue – and one that needs to be talked about as such.
Gender Roles, Norms and Transgressions
Gender, unlike our biologically assigned sex, is a social construct. We are taught from a young age the appropriate norms and behaviours which supposedly match our biological sex. The roles form a construct of cultural stereotypes which define a range of traits. Behaviours, interests, attitudes, and characteristics are often regarded as typically feminine or masculine.
Within a society, these roles imposed from birth can lead to blind spots in our ability to acknowledge the issue of men’s eating disorders. We far more readily associate eating disorders with feminine behaviour. Thus men and eating disorders together make for a transgression of gender norms. ‘My Thinning Years’ is a brilliant exploration of the development of an eating disorder. The author Jon Derek Croteau writes, ”what would it do for (me) to admit that I might possibly have a girl’s disease?”
A Growing Issue
Normative thinking of this kind leads to a lack of dialogue on the issue. Men feel they can’t speak up for fear of ridicule or disbelief. This in turn can contribute to a growing problem and increase the chance that men who have an eating disorder suffer alone, in silence.
Men Get Eating Disorders Too! is a support network and charity geared specifically toward male sufferers. On their Facebook page, there are comments from men which describe in crushing terms how they feel. So many say they feel “alone”, “lost”, and “just existing and not living”. Others wrote that they “don’t know who I am anymore” and “don’t know where to turn to”. From these comments among others, it is clear just how much the illness has isolated them.
Men face the same pressures to conform to a certain body type that women do. It’s naïve to assume that only women are exposed to an avalanche of media that prescribes the way we ‘should’ look. Feminism has long been trying to lessen the burden placed on women to look a certain way, and in a sense the sexes have become more equal. Yet instead of women worrying less about their body image, men have started to worry just as much – often with disastrous and dangerous consequences.
For men, the issue can be centred around a desire to be of a more muscular build, or to be thinner. There are higher instances of men wanting to be bulkier and women wanting to be thinner. However we shouldn’t polarise the way we view gender and eating disorders. Men suffer from anorexia and bulimia, too. And there are women who abuse steroids.
Time to Speak Up
With male eating disorders on the rise, the time is ripe to reassess our thinking. We also need to change the way we talk about men and the issue so that we may address it for what is is. It is a human one that doesn’t belong to either gender.
Many studies have found that gender roles and orientation play an important part in the development, duration, and course of eating disorders. As one study states, ”Femininity and masculinity although independent traits, should not be considered isolated from each other in the context of eating disorders.” Self perception and gender roles are intrinsically tied together by psychological factors such as body image and self-esteem: both of which are central to eating disorders.
It’s encouraging that the dialogue surrounding men’s health has been slowly widening in very recent years. But it must match the dialogue and accompanying support available to female sufferers. If the information gap continues then we have effectively shaped another field in which one gender is assumed to have no need for knowledge. Specific information is limited, yet a wealth of literature exists for the opposite gender. This serves to further strengthen roles and norms, and highlight perceived transgressions.
Role Modelling – Not the Gender Kind
How we collectively behave as a society shapes and moulds our children. Social conditioning is a powerful and, to a degree, unavoidable force. There needs to be greater understanding and acceptance of eating disorders in men and boys, and we need to see eating disorders for what they are – a mental health issue. This would mean that stigmas such as ‘a girl’s disease’ are removed.
As a society we need to recognise that eating disorders don’t discriminate based on gender. We need to start talking about the issue from a perspective of equality. Inclusivity around eating disorders and gender not only raises awareness and generates dialogue, it also helps to lessen the potential impact on our loved ones.
More Information and Resources:
The NHS Live Well page on eating disorders, featuring videos and articles on various types of ED.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists page on eating disorders, containing comprehensive information on ED including warning signs and symptoms.