“Guys just don’t get it,” he said, fidgeting in his chair. “When I tell a guy friend about my eating disorder they say, ‘Come on, dude. That’s a girl thing.’ They don’t understand, so I don’t tell them.”
The person speaking was one of the two men present at the support group last Wednesday night, and the issue he was addressing is a serious one: male sufferers of eating disorders are stigmatized and shamed for having a stereotypically ”female disorder.”
Did you know that 10% of the eight million people in the United States suffering from an eating disorder are men? It’s a truth not often talked about because many male sufferers feel ashamed or embarrassed; they “can’t have one” because it’s something only girls deal with. Eating disorders are commonly stereotyped as a “female problem,” which creates a damaging stigma that discourages a lot of male sufferers from seeking much-needed support and treatment. It’s dangerous because according to NEDA (and common sense), eating disorders in males are clinically similar to, if not indistinguishable from, eating disorders in females: all those hazardous life-threatening health risks and consequences are the same.
According to Dr. Roberto Olivardia, a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and co-author of The Adonis Complex, males with eating disorders are more likely to suffer from bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder than anorexia nervosa. Sometimes the eating disorder manifests as exercise bulimia, where the sufferer will exercise to the point of excess. This comes as no surprise considering the number of sports that necessitate weight restrictions; body builders, wrestlers, dancers, swimmers, runners, rowers, gymnasts, and jockeys are all considered at risk for developing eating disorders. There’s a huge pressure within the athletic world to succeed and be the best and this competitive drive can contribute to eating disordered behaviors, especially when combined with any non-athletic pressures in a person’s life.
So what predisposes a man to having an eating disorder? Well, according to Dr. Olivardia, men with a history of being overweight or the “chubby kid” growing up have a good chance of developing an eating disorder, as do men with a late transition into puberty. Certain personality characteristics are risk factors, too: perfectionism, high achievement orientation, and impulsivity; low self-esteem and assertiveness issues. Homosexual men are especially at risk due to pressures within the gay community to be thin, although heterosexual men are affected just as much. Men and boys today are barraged by the media with messages of body ideals, of having to be muscular and lean in order to be considered masculine, and it’s starting to take its toll.
Like female sufferers, male sufferers often have other psychological illnesses as well as their eating disorder like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, self-injury, substance abuse, borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and multiple personality syndrome. There’s also external factors like family problems, relationship issues, abuse, and societal pressures at play. Like I mentioned earlier, eating disorders are for the most part pretty similar across the gender spectrum and are all serious and in need of treatment.
Speaking of treatment… did you know that males are less likely to be diagnosed early with an eating disorder and even more unlikely to seek treatment? A lot of the treatment programs and support groups for eating disorders are designed for women – some even exclusive to women – and the thought of being a minority in a population of women makes treatment a daunting prospect for men, causing them to feel even more alone. The men I’ve met in treatment have expressed one of their main frustrations as feeling out-of-place and disconnected from the more female-focused discussions, and they make a good point; I can only imagine how isolating that must be. Despite this, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are treatment centers that work with men, a list of which can be found here.
By spreading awareness of males with eating disorders, we can spread understanding. Eating disorders reach across all genders, races, and ages – they know no discrimination. If you are a male with an eating disorder, speak up and speak out. Please know that you’re not alone and that you deserve help.