The stereotypical person many of us would first think of when asked to picture someone with an Eating Disorder is more often than not an adolescent girl or young woman with Anorexia Nervosa. Additionally this image would typically involve someone either standing in front of a mirror or on a weighing scale. However, in truth, such presumptions are erroneous and only fuel stereotypes about Eating Disorders - and these could not be further away from the truth.
When it comes to stereotypes, while there is an iota of truth in there, taking what’s true for a few and making sweeping generalisations about it by applying it to the larger population can do great damage, irrespective of the cause we are talking about it. This holds true for the case of Eating Disorders as well. When we’re asked to picture someone with an Eating Disorder, why is it that we conjure up the image of a specific population group? Certainly, many people with Eating Disorders do fit that image, but holding this stereotype excludes entire groups of people who also struggle with these dangerous health conditions, including women in midlife, people who don’t look “thin enough” to have an eating disorder, and of course, men. The reality is that these conditions don’t discriminate based on age, gender, income, race or ethnic boundaries - and neither should we. While females do make up a bulk of those affected by disordered eating, it also affects boys and men, and this is something we need to talk about more and keep a look out for given that it can very often go unnoticed. This piece will look to throw more light on the silent struggle men face when it comes to Eating Disorders.
Eating Disorders are serious but treatable Mental Health conditions that primarily include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Historically, and socially, these disorders are most commonly thought of as affecting women but there is ample research to suggest that these conditions can occur regardless of gender and are very likely to be underrepresented, under-diagnosed, and under-treated in men. When someone is struggling with Mental Health condition, not fitting the stereotype is often a significant barrier to seeking help, and in the case of men who struggle with Eating Disorders. In this case, that barrier can be fatal as the risk of death from an Eating Disorder is higher for males than it is for females. Additionally, despite the stereotype that Eating Disorders only occur in women, about 1 in 3 people struggling with an Eating Disorder is male, and other subclinical eating disordered behaviours (including binge eating, purging, laxative abuse, and fasting for weight loss) are nearly as common among men as they are among women.
Eating Disorders in men can look different to what they do in females. Females with eating disorders are typically obsessed with being thin while men on the other hand mainly tend to be focused on achieving a muscular physique. This manifestation is sometimes known as “bigorexia,” Unlike with females, who often become alarmingly skinny and visibly unhealthy, in case of men, Eating Disorders are often harder to recognize because often nothing looks “wrong” on the outside. This is mainly because in case of men it is easier to be led astray in guise of what is considered acceptable, even laudable, male behaviour given that exercising, even excessively, is socially valued in men. This behaviour of over exercising often gets looked over as we assume that this could be associated with either training for a sport or simply wanting to be fit, something that’s praised for men in our society.
There are challenges which men face when it comes to Eating Disorders which not only relate to stigma, but also with regards to diagnosis and treatment. The failure to recognise Eating Disorders in men poses a problem that many do not realise. Very often the individuals themselves may not notice what they’re going through due to the general stigma attached to the issue. It may also happen that men may not want to be associated with a problem that primarily affects women or is looked at as a feminine concern, and men are less likely to admit weakness and seek help. Additionally, men are often told by society that they should be tall, lean and muscular and this can lead them to feel inadequate if their body type differs from this so-called ‘standard convention’. In order to reach this ideal, they may end up developing an Eating Disorder. Furthermore, men may feel pressured to lift weights or body build in order to fit in. This can lead to unhealthy exercise, disordered eating habits, poor self-image or underlying psychological issues, as well an addiction to diet pills or steroids - all which can contribute long term to an Eating Disorder. Men struggling with body issues may also face shame or discomfort in discussing this with others with the fear of coming across as “feminine” or “weak”. These concerns pose serious challenges to men when it comes to Eating Disorders.
Today we also live in an age where toxic masculinity prevails. Tying in with the above points is the impossible standards we hold for men. The ideas that they need to have a certain body type, appearance and have to be strong. Part of this includes the idea that struggling with their Mental Health, crying in public or private or even having a hard time with their Mental Health will make them ‘unmanly’ or weak. This is another reason why the topic of eating disorders among men is highly avoided. The idea which we earlier explored regarding how most people think only about young women as struggling with the problem is where this problem lies. While it is true that the disorder is liable to occur in such people due to increasing societal pressures and self-esteem issues, most fail to notice that the men around them may be suffering from it as well.
Researchers also believe that the male Eating Disorders we are seeing today are just the tip of the iceberg. There are several reasons attributed to why this area has not received enough attention, including the omission of males from research, the bias by professionals and the lack of recognition of Eating Disorders by males, their family members and professionals alike. Additionally, the stigma associated with males seeking help for what has primarily been seen as a female illness also plays a big role. Men are often excluded from Eating Disorder treatment centres and the feminine branding of these centres including pink or floral decoration, no male images on websites and marketing materials can also play a big role in men not reaching out to them. Given that Eating Disorders may manifest with different symptoms in males than in females and that the diagnostic criteria for an Eating Disorder has been gender biased can make it harder for men to be assessed and diagnosed.
The bottom line is that Eating Disorders are complex Mental Health conditions with serious medical consequences and can affect anyone, no matter what they look like. Please know that there is no shame in sharing, embracing emotions, and talking about what you are struggling with. Know that with the appropriate and timely help, recovery is possible, and you can get there when you find the support you need and deserve. For the rest of us, we need to strive to create a safe and non-judgemental environment in which people feel comfortable to talk about such issues. When these topics are frequently brought up and spoken about unabashedly it can normalise the perception around them and help to reduce the stigma around it. This is the way we can move towards having more help and support available and having people more willing to openly share their struggles.
Written by: Yash Mehrotra
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