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Debunking the myths surrounding eating disorders in men


There is little said about men’s relationships with their bodies, particularly when it comes to eating disorders.
Source: Photorevolution/Shutterstock

The idea of the perfect body is presented to children at a young age, it can be argued that action figures and Barbie dolls subconsciously programme us to view our bodies a certain way and strive to attain a certain body type. But how come body type is a widely discussed topic when it comes to women, however, little is said about men’s relationships with their bodies, particularly when it comes to eating disorders.


Eating Disorder Psychologist, Dr Rachel Evans gave Kindred. some insight into eating disorders concerning men. She mentioned that research suggests 25 per cent of those with a diagnosed eating disorder are male. "There is less research conducted specifically with males who have eating disorders and treatments are often tested with groups of women, which can reinforce the idea that men don't get eating disorders.


"There are likely to be more men struggling with an eating disorder than the statistics suggest," she says. "Perhaps because men don't identify what is happening to them, or they feel like they can't come forward and say, ‘I have an eating disorder.'"

Consequently, eating disorders are typically associated with women and less is known about how men deal with them.


A prime example is gym advocates who religiously keep track of their calorie intake. The media often portrays this stereotype as a successful male, but how healthy is this in reality?


Someone who knows this all too well is 25-year-old model and gym enthusiast, Divine Opare.


"I realised it puts you on edge and the numbers start to feel bigger and bigger," he says. "A simple sausage roll isn't a sausage roll anymore; it's now 307 calories of pastry. You think of it as small things, but after a while, the number gets blown up in your head, and you find yourself not even enjoying the simple things in life."


There are many myths associated with eating disorders and men. Dr Evans highlights that a common misconception is that only gay men get eating disorders. She said: "Whilst there is evidence that those in the LBGTQ+ community are at increased risk of developing an eating disorder than those who identify as cisgender and heterosexual, this doesn't mean that heterosexual males don't develop eating disorders."


She includes that people expect eating disorders to present themselves in the same way for both males and females, which is not the case.


Dr. Evans said: "The stereotype is a desire and pursuit of thinness. This may be the case for some men, however, the perceived ideal body shape for men in the Western world is lean and muscular or a V-shape, which may lead to an eating disorder presenting as excessive exercise and control around food to manage body weight and build muscles."


Opare discusses this issue, reinforcing that it is a lot more prevalent for men than we hold it accountable for:


"As a society, we come from a place where we talk a lot more about women's bodies. We kept policing women's bodies on how they should look. I don't think the same spotlight is put on men for the same reasons. The same way women go through body dysmorphia, men go through it as well."

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) or body dysmorphia, is a mental health condition where a person spends a significant amount of time worrying about their appearance. The mirror can become a perfect tool, aiding body dysmorphia, enabling people to visually search for the progress of a workout or diet.


Dr. Evans mentioned: "To an observer, a man who is dedicated to the gym and eating very healthily could be seen as a positive thing, but if it is accompanied by feelings of anxiety from missing a workout, binge-eating, purging behaviour, or food restriction leading to symptoms of malnutrition, then there is cause for concern."


Opare shared his personal experience: "I've had times when I have not had the best diet or eating habits. I let it slide for the sake of saying ‘I am just dieting or working out’, and trying to look a certain type of way."


'Letting it slide' emphasises the stigma around men receiving a diagnosis. Dr. Evans calls attention to the stereotypes that are associated with men when discussing eating disorders or any other mental issues, noting it is to do with the way men are brought up.


"‘Boys don't cry' and they need to ‘keep a stiff upper lip’, ‘be strong’ and avoid showing 'weakness'," she says. "There's also the idea that ‘talking is for girls’ and the perception that eating disorders such as anorexia are feminine or gay. Cisgender heterosexual males may feel that they don't want to be associated with eating disorders and these stereotypes."


Opare confirms this theory: "When I break it down, I will be rowing 10k, having one meal that day, running back and forth from the gym. I might be a muscular man doing this, but if I was a skinny girl doing this, would I be anorexic?"


Dr. Evans informs us that "the criteria for diagnosis of anorexia used to include amenorrhoea (absence of menstrual cycle/periods), which obviously can't be diagnosed in males and may have led to gender bias in the diagnosis of eating disorders."


Opare reinforces the mental battle he faces and reveals his guilt around eating by admitting his unhealthy relationship with food that heightened during his time as a model.


"I think the only reason why I didn't view it as having an eating disorder is that I'm a guy with pride and the male ego is a big thing," he says. "I just didn't want to have that label attached with me.

“If I ate too much, I'll throw up, and I'll be like onto the next. It's bad, I'd eat a carrot in the morning, and then I would just spit the carrot out – I just needed to have something in my mouth.”


When discussing the differences between the sexes and how they handle eating disorder diagnosis, Dr. Evans said: "It may be more challenging to work with male clients in situations where they are in denial that they are experiencing an eating disorder because they believe men don't get eating disorders, or they want to avoid the perceived stigma of attending therapy."


Dr. Evans and Opare both agree that discussing eating disorders and body dysmorphia through the media is a great way to spread awareness and challenge stereotypes.


Opare, who has a fitness page on Instagram titled Bodiesbydivine, pledges to make it a platform for open and honest discussions on health and fitness. "We've got enough people showing us how to have a six-pack. No one talks about the hurdles and inconsistencies. That's what its role is, just to be an open and honest reflection of my relationship with my body and others with theirs," he says.


Dr. Evans said: "Men are slowly able to speak about their experiences with their friends and family, through their social media accounts or press outlets, which is a positive step in reducing stigma and helping others identify when they may be struggling.


“We also need a change within research and treatment to proactively reduce gender bias. I think this will also naturally happen as more men recognise that they may be struggling with an eating disorder or body dysmorphia and engage with researchers, therapists, and doctors."

Opare emphasises: "Men do get eating disorders, men do care about how they look and what they eat. Body image does have the same effect on guys as it does on girls. You don't have to have such a defined image of yourself. You can fluctuate, and you do fluctuate. There's no way of constantly improving the way we want. You're only human at the end of the day."

 

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder or body dysmorphia, Dr. Evans provides specialist recovery therapy. Here are some other organisations that can also be of help: Stem 4, Orri, Beat Eating disorders and Life works.