Eating Disorders: A Female-centric issue?

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Photograph: Ralph Aichinger

The stigmas and stereotypes of eating disorders are plentiful. While some progress is being made, the misinformed and cruel idea of a sufferer being simply narcissistic, vain, or shallow still seeps into discourse.  This image is nearly automatically female – an assumption that is not only wrong, but also dangerous.

Statistics vary, but it is estimated that between 10 and 25 percent of diagnosed eating disorder sufferers are male. In 2004, The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) put it at 11% – which equates to roughly 180,000 men in the UK.  The National Centre for Eating Disorders cites studies which indicate that in North America there are probably more men suffering with bulimia than women with anorexia.  The number who are actually suffering is (like their female counterparts) undoubtedly far higher than collected statistics, with many people remaining undiagnosed and untreated.

What is causing this rise? When eating disorders in women are discussed in print, the role of culture and the media invariably crops up.  Attempts at pointing out possibly damaging material for women are at least made, while its male counterpart frequently remains undiscussed.  In 2009, ‘Men’s Health’ outsold ‘FHM’ and ‘Nuts’ magazine – and has been the only one of the three to report year on year circulation increase.  Yet public conversation over the problems for twenty first century men tend not to revolve around  the emotional and mental toll that living in modern society can take on them as well, but rather more superficial issues.  Even discussion of how physical expectations are growing for men tend to centre on notions of how unfair the expectation is, rather than how unhealthy.

When eating disorders in men are discussed, it is most frequently in relationship to sport. The necessity for the “right kind of body” in many sports is a breeding ground for unhealthy behaviour, whether the concentration is on losing weight or on building up muscle. Under these circumstances, male anorexia is more likely to be accessed by over-exercising than restrictive eating and bulimia is likely to simply be written off as having a “male appetite”. While coaches should be trained in recognising such things, the positive short-term impact from the unhealthy behaviour may be valued and the methods of achieving it either not thought about or not looked into.

Many eating disorder-based support and educational charities believe that the pervasive feminisation of eating disorders means male sufferers are frequently being misdiagnosed or simply missed. Any self-realisation of the problem or desire to seek help on the part of the sufferer may be tempered by shame at having a so-called female problem – a view that many male sufferers have admitted to.  These two factors mean that if help does come, it is invariably later and when more damage has been done.

Is anything being done about it? Education and funding are – as nearly always – a large part of at least treating the problem.  Charities are calling for increased awareness and education, but you only have to look at the comments on online articles to know their attempts are not as overwhelmingly effective as one might hope.  With the charity MIND recently revealing that local authorities only spend 1.36% of their budgets on mental health (in spite of a social and economic cost of £105 billion a year), things aren’t looking good for anyone suffering with any mental health disorder – let alone one that is even more frequently ignored or unconsidered.

For more information on male eating disorders, log onto www.mengetedtoo.co.uk – and please consider logging onto www.mind.org.uk to fill out a quick form, so that a letter can be sent to your local paper over the funding of treatment for mental health disorders.