Can men get eating disorders too?

Historically, we have heard of more women suffering from eating disorders than men, which has led to the common belief that it’s a “girl thing”. Even many textbooks exclusively refer to eating disorder sufferers as “young girls”. This is infuriating because eating disorders can affect all genders, they can occur at any age and in all social classes.

In fact around 25% of sufferers are male according to the eating disorder charity BEAT. Although bear in mind that eating disorders in men is still a bit of a taboo so it’s likely that many other unreported cases exist. Many men struggle on their own for fear no one will take them seriously.

Men have feelings too

Nowadays we talk a lot about how strong women are, how capable they are and how we need to strive for equality of rights between men and women. That’s great and thank goodness we’re getting there on that front but in the name of equality we need to make sure we don’t reinforce gender stereotypes when it comes to men. We have raised women to be “beautiful” and men not to show their feelings. Phrases likes: “men need to be strong”, “real men don’t cry”, “man up!” etc., can still frequently be heard now. The thing is, men have feelings too. In fact, they face similar struggles to women and they are increasingly under pressure from the media to look “manly” and “buffed”. A quick scan of men magazines (no, not those ones) reveal that the headlines are such:

  • The 7 minute workout Hugh Jackman uses to shred fat.
  • 5 reasons your chest isn’t growing.
  • Want to drop more weight? Consider dropping breakfast before a workout, research suggest.
  • The ultimate home six pack workout.

The illustrations that come with those headlines are consistently of ripped, sculpted, tanned men in their underwear or at the very least with their tops off.

We teach little boys to be tough but those same little boys grow up in a world where they are confronted with ads selling them unrealistic body ideals. Men’s ads are overly sexualised and are all about tight boxer shorts, (“expert invincible sports 96h anti-perspirant”) deodorants, tan bodies and white teeth. The message to our boys is clear the “real man” they should aspire to is one square jawed, six-packed, golden hunk with a scantily clad waif like woman by their sides. The ideal male body has become as impossible as the female body women have been aspiring to for years.

Men, too, feel inadequate about their bodies but for fear of not being tough, their feelings seem inadequate now. This makes it harder for them reach out and ask for help. It is this situation which makes eating disorder in men so dangerous.

Eating disorders in men can take many forms

Like women, men can suffer from any eating disorders. Bulimia seems to be the most common in men, but there are plenty of anorexic men. When it comes to binge eating disorder, many boys/men have never heard of it and so won’t even think they have a problem. Friends often (unintentionally) make things worse: “he’s just Big Jim, everyone loves Big Jim!” well, except for Jim himself, which is why he buys food on his way home and eats it in secret in his room when he gets home.

Bigorexia is probably the fastest growing male eating disorder of this century. Bigorexia is the popular term for muscle dysmorphia, otherwise called reverse anorexia. It’s a form of body dysmorphic disorder when people obsess about building muscle and being lean. Sufferers see themselves much smaller than they truly are. It causes them great distress while fuelling the need to workout more. They will spend a lot of time at the gym and will make dramatic adjustments to their diets in the pursuit of the best body. They eat enough calories but have an imbalance in their diets. Typically this means too much protein, not enough fat and sometimes not enough carbohydrates. They may take steroids to help them bulk up.

It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men

That’s not from me by the way, these were the words of the American orator Frederik Douglass.

The idea of being bigger can start very early. My then 7 year old once told after school that he wanted a six pack… He didn’t really know what a six-pack was but his friend told him he had one and naturally he wanted one too. Think about the differences between the 70s or 80s superhero costumes and the ones our kids have. I find muscular superhero costumes disturbing. If my kids are going to believe in superheroes, I want them to think they look like the men the see in the street, like their daddy’s. I don’t want them to think they have to look a certain to be super.

As a mum of two young boys, I feel particularly touched by this subject. I want to reach out to all the boys and men out there: your worries are valid, ask for help.

Contact me if you, your son, boyfriend, husband etc., are/is suffering from an eating disorder.