By Spyroulla Spyrou
Eating disorders are perceived to affect women and only women. This is a huge misconception as eating disorders do affect men and there are men who are struggling with eating disorders. It is about time to recognise that men, just as well as women, have concerns over their weight, body, shape and appearance.
Men with eating disorders are reluctant to admit to having an eating disorder which is stereotypically perceived to be ‘a female disease’ or ‘girls’ problems’. Being a man with an eating disorder can be perceived to be ‘less masculine’ and ‘flawed’. Men with eating disorders may feel stigmatised and ashamed of having a stereotypically perceived ‘female disorder’. The perceived stigma of beinga man with an eating disorder makes it more difficult for a man to admit to having an eating disorder and in reaching out for help. Men with eating disorders have long been suffering in silence, in what has been named an ‘invisible struggle’.
Men with eating disorders have been overlooked by mental health professionals as they are less likely to diagnose a man with an eating disorder or refer them to specialised eating disorders services (SLaM Media Release, 2010). Personal accounts of men with eating disorders frequently include stories of how health professionals failed to recognised their eating disorder and were instructed to either ‘just eat’, ‘go on a diet’ or ‘they are depressed’. John Morgan, a psychiatrist who specialises in eating disorders argues that men are ‘less likely to recognise their eating disorder, are more likely to be misdiagnosed with other mental health problems, are less likely to receive treatment and are less likely to be referred to specialist eating disorder services’ (2009).
Statistics show that eating disorders are most common in women but they are also present in men. The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence reported that 1.6 million people in the UK are affected by an eating disorder, of which 11% are male. Research studies suggest that 10-20% of cases of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are men and up to 40% of cases of binge eating disorder are men (Muise et al 2003). It is also believed that the actual numbers of men with eating disorders may be higher than the ones reported due to the fact that men are reluctant in seeking help for their eating disorder, they might not recognise or admit that they suffer from a ‘female disease’ and also health professionals might not readily recognise eating disorder symptoms in men.
Overall, there is a general rise in the numbers of men who are suffering from eating disorders. However, it is questionable whether it is because truly there are more incidents of men suffering with eating disorders in more recent years or it is because of an increase in awareness in this area. Either way, there is a rise in the awareness of eating disorders in men as more men are coming forward in admitting to struggling with an eating disorder, seeking help and sharing their experiences. Also the media is increasingly addressing men’s problems with eating disorders, for example, ‘Binge eating among men steps out of the shadows’ (New York Times, 2012); ‘The secret world of male anorexia’ (The Guardian, 2012); ‘Rise in men suffering from eating disorders’ (BBC News, 2011). Charities are also working towards raising awareness in eating disorders and men, for example ‘Men Get Eating Disorders Too’, ‘No Bodies Perfect’, B-eat, SWEDA and SRSH, a few blogs e.g. ‘Sleepless in Newcastle’, ‘Until eating disorders are no more’ and Facebook pages ‘Binge Eating Disorder and Men’.
Another stereotype concerning men and eating disorders is that all men with eating disorders are homosexual. This is supported from arguments that the gay community is under heightened pressures to conform to a stereotypical attractive male body physique which in turn heightens males’ vulnerability towards disordered eating and body dissatisfaction. However, studies show that only 20% of males with eating disorders are homosexual and regardless of sexual orientation, body image dissatisfaction does exist among men. Similar to homosexual men, heterosexual men also have increasingly heightened pressures to conform to similar unattainable body image ideals.
The ideal body image differs between men and women, in what has been termed as ‘thinness vs masculinity’ where women strive to achieve a thin body image ideal and men strive to achieve a muscular body image ideal. The issue of masculinity is very prominent to ‘muscle dysmorphia’, where the individual is highly preoccupied with gaining muscularity without gaining fat. It is also come to be known as ‘bigorexia’ or ‘reverse anorexia’ a condition which is more common in men than in women.
Even though eating disorders is a well researched area, it is mainly research conducted on women and not men. Recently there has been a shift as more research studies are published on the issue of men and eating disorders and this issue is receiving a more widely media coverage.
More research and awareness is needed in the area of men and eating disorders for mental health professionals to be better able to provide specifically tailored treatments for the needs of men with eating disorders. With raising awareness, more men will feel better understood and better able to speak up about their own struggles and experiences and seek treatment for their eating disorder to finally put an end to what has long been and hopefully will no longer be an ‘invisible struggle’.
Thank you to SRSH for sending us this blog.