We Need To Start Talking About Male Eating Disorders
Back in 2018, I was diagnosed with an eating disorder. I suffered for a long time without understanding what was really going on. In an attempt to try and figure out what the suffering I was experiencing actually was, I searched the internet for experiences of eating disorders. I vaguely knew what they were, although I didn’t know enough to figure out that is what I was suffering with.
When I searched through Instagram, YouTube and more, I noticed a recurring pattern. Although there were many women speaking of their experiences with eating disorders, there were very few men – if any at all. In my uneducated and misled realisation, I told myself I wasn’t suffering with an eating disorder. The proof was very clearly in front of me. Men don’t suffer with these issues, as shown by my search results. My obsession over calories must’ve been something else. My anxiety around food was just ‘normal’. My daily cycle of restriction, purging and bingeing was just my life, not the result of an illness I needed help with.
This piece isn’t an attack on the women who do speak on these issues. Every story shared is invaluable in dismantling the idea that we can’t talk about these issues. Although for some reason, there is a stereotype that those with eating disorders are: 1) Women and 2) Extremely underweight. Pair this stereotype with the fact that I did not see men talking about these issues, I sadly believed that I was not suffering with the issues that I very much was. This was largely due to me believing in a stereotype that I did not fit into. I didn’t get help as early as I should have done and I suffered needlessly as a result.
So, how many men actually do suffer from eating disorders then? Previous research has suggested up to a quarter of patients with eating disorders are men. Knowing this, there should be no reason why so few men are speaking about these issues publicly. However, when you consider other factors particularly related to men and masculinity, it starts to make more sense.
Where there is undoubtedly a pressure on women to be smaller, there is a similar pressure on men to be bigger. Men need to have hard minds, free of suffering. To match this, men must have a hard body. Hard arms, shoulders, chest, abs, everything. I never really considered this too much until one day I walked into a health food shop to buy some protein powder. I train quite frequently in a manner that I would class as healthy and beneficial to my life. As a result, I use protein powder in order to maintain my training and feel good as a result. Not for the sake of ‘bulking up’, just to feel good.
Regardless, I took my protein powder to the till and I was asked for my ID. I thought this was strange and asked the person behind the till why that was.
They told me that young boys have been found to be abusing it. With this in mind, they had to ID those who buy it. It didn’t really click why straight away. In my view, that pressure to be strapped with muscle is one that is just inherent of the male experience.
However, that view is one based on disordered attitudes around food and exercise. A 2015 BBC News article stated that one in ten men found in the gym suffer with Muscle Dysmorphia. This has been rather crudely termed as ‘Bigorexia’. This is a condition where men mistakenly believe they are smaller than they are which causes great distress. An article from the Guardian just a few months back highlighted these struggles even more starkly. The piece discusses a study showing that boys as young as 6 years old show that they are internalizing the desire to be more muscle bound. Six. Years. Old.
You may notice that none of these issues are centred around making yourself as small or as light as possible. Rather, they are all fuelled by a desire to be larger, harder and stronger. Don’t get me wrong, I think exercise is great. However, it should not be used as a way to hide disordered attitudes around eating and exercise which significantly effect men. The protein powder story is just one way of how men have found themselves in a disordered relationship with food and exercise. There are a range of other signs of this: increased use of steroids, gruelling exercise routines, increased substance use and more.
As I said in the beginning, I feel stereotypes are toxic especially regarding eating disorders. The stereotypes of those with an eating disorder being both only women and underweight is harmful to many. Although I am talking about men in this instance and the desire to be bigger, these stereotypes also affect many others. I just wanted to share my experience as a male and what I see in myself and other men when it comes to disordered attitudes around food and exercise.
Connor is a Psychology graduate and mental health campaigner. You can find him on Instagram @recoveryconnor