Eating Disorders in Males

Flip open almost any magazine today and you’re bound to see at least a few glossy images of a pouty, 90-pound white woman rocking some kind of outlandish ensemble (do people even wear any of that in the real world?). Walk past a store window and the mannequins will likely be sculpted goddesses that don’t reflect 90% of the body types found in the human race. Celebrities make millions off of endorsing products that vow to rid your body of “toxins” and leave you looking slimmer than ever (“lose 10LBS in THREE DAYS!!!”). If it’s not one Miracle Product screaming for our attention, it’s another. As a woman, I am hyper-aware of exactly how I don’t measure up to the media’s standards of beauty, and the subliminal messages of “you can never be too thin” are everywhere. The worst thing a girl can be called is—not “unkind,” not “selfish,” or “small-minded,” or “weak”—but fat.

Keeping this in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that 20 million women in the US will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives. Similarly, 4 out of 10 Americans have suffered from an eating disorder, or know someone who has. The data here in Canada is comparatively limited, but according to a 2002 survey, 1.5% of Canadian women between the ages of 15-24 had an eating disorder. The slew of categories of eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and orthorexia and Body Dysmorphic Disorder, “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” which can be a combination of several disordered eating habits, and is now recognized as OSFED (“other specified feeding or eating disorder”) in the DSM-5.* AN has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, with 10% of those afflicted likely to die within 10 years of the onset of the disorder.

Eating disorders have been around since the Middle Ages in various forms. The first noted occurrences of disordered eating were related to religious fasting and “denial of self,” as well as accounts of members of the upper class inducing vomiting between meals in order to consume more. In the 17th-19th centuries, anorexia was described as a “wasting disease,” until sometime in the 20th century when it became considered an endocrine disorder and was treated with pituitary hormones. The term anorexia was coined in 1873 by Queen Victoria’s personal physician, and translates to “nervous absence of appetite.” In 1973, German-born American psychoanalyst Hilde Bruch published a case study on anorexia nervosa entitled Eating Disorders: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa, and the Person Within. As obesity rates climbed higher and higher, eating disorder cases continued to rise throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, and the ‘clean eating’ and dieting fads came into being.

It is clear from the statistics above that eating disorders disproportionately affect women. Following this line of reasoning, many attempts to spread awareness about EDs are geared towards women, as are portrayals of characters with Body Dysmorphic Disorder in films such as Girl, Interrupted (1999), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), and shows like Skins, Glee, and Pretty Little Liars. While some forms of media take steps to actively raise awareness and combat stigma about the subject, some, such as the 2006 film starring Anne Hathaway, take jabs at the issue—i.e. when Emily Blunt’s character talks about her new diet (“I don’t eat anything, and when I feel like I’m about to faint I eat a cube of cheese”). Regardless of the way eating disorders are presented or addressed, it is clear that the intended audience is women. But what about the undoubtedly equally significant group of men who suffer from disordered eating?

Studies on the impact of Eating Disorders in men are somewhat elusive, but according to the website for the National Eating Disorders Association, the lifetime prevalence for men is 0.3% for anorexia nervosa (AN), 0.5% for bulimia nervosa (BN), and 2% for binge eating disorder (BED). 25% of American men are on a diet on any given day, and subclinical disordered eating behaviors (laxative abuse, fasting for weight loss, etc.) are nearly as common in males as in females. Further, a 2011 study of 2,322 students on a university campus found that 3.6% of males had positive screenings for ED, with the female-to-male ratio being 3:1. It is also worth noting that males with eating disorders are more likely to suffer from conditions such as depression, excessive exercise, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders. Muscle dysmorphia, a subset of body dysmorphic disorder, is also emerging and prevalent among young bodybuilders, not to mention the current emphasis on male models to be “leaner” and thinner.

So why do we hear so little about men’s side of the issue? Well, partly to blame (as always) is “The Man.” Yes—I am referring to the patriarchy. Because while we are quick to point out the negative and oppressive effects of society’s male-centric characteristics, the fact is that the system we live in is harmful to everyone. The ideal of men being sculpted, muscular pillars of stone prevents men from truly discussing their problems, be they physical, mental, or emotional. This leads to men facing the double stigma for having an illness that is considered “feminine,” and for seeking help for it, causing underdiagnoses and men missing out on the many resources out there that can give them much-needed help. Institutions such as NEDA and the National Eating Disorder Information Centre work to provide support for people—men and women—with all types of ED and body dysmorphic disorder. In order to end the stigma that men with eating disorders face, it is essential to spread awareness and discourage traditional tenets of masculinity (as well as femininity), which are beneficial to no one.

I will end this article with a link to a brief documentary about muscle dysmorphia in men, otherwise known as “Bigorexia.”

*The DSM-5 (or DSM-V) is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (2013).

If you or anyone you know suffers from any form of eating disorder, I encourage you to call the following free, confidential Helplines to receive help and counseling:

NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association):
1-800-931-2237 Mon-Thurs 9AM-9PM, and Fri from 9AM-5PM (EST)
NEDIC (National Eating Disorder Information Centre):
1-866-633-4220 (open until 9PM EST)
Toronto: 416-350-4156

If you would like to know more about eating disorders or chat online with a Helpline volunteer, please visit http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/.

Deans, Emily. “A History of Eating Disorders.” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 11 Dec. 2011. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

“Males and Eating Disorders.” National Eating Disorders Association. NEDA.org, n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

“Statistics.” National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC). N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

Trebay, Guy. “The Vanishing Point.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 06 Feb. 2008. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

“What Are Eating Disorders.” Allianceforeatingdisorders.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.

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Lana is currently a third-year BBA student at Brock University. She was born in Ethiopia, but has lived in Burundi, Sudan, Kenya, and the United States as well, before coming to Canada for university as a Permanent Resident. She is 21 years old and her interests include drawing, reading, writing, yoga, music, and kickboxing. Some issues that are of great interest to her include travel, humanitarian aid, mental health, art, philosophy, and history.

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