Eating Disorders: Not Just a Women’s Issue

When I was fifteen years old I weighed 160 pounds. I know, that doesn’t seem like a lot, and really, it wasn’t, but for a short guy with a small frame, it was… noticeable, but most importantly, it felt very, very noticeable. The obvious thing to do would have been to speak up; if I had said I wanted to lose weight, I would have had plenty of healthy support and guidance. But I was embarrassed and stubborn, so I didn’t say anything. I just stopped eating. A year later I was hovering just above 100 pounds and frustrated that I couldn’t get down to double digits. And yet from that point it would be almost another year before someone actually suggested something was wrong.

When a young woman makes drastic changes in her diet and weight, we’re trained to suspect the possibility of an eating disorder. But for men, it’s still very much seen as a women’s issue, despite the fact that an estimated ten million men in the US alone struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives. And that number could be rising- while traditional numbers estimate 10 per cent of eating disorder sufferers are male, more recent figures suggest anywhere from a quarter to 40% of all persons with eating disorders may be men. Complicating matters further, many of these men don’t display the motivations we see as ‘normal’ in eating disorders. They fixate not on being thin but on bulking up and ‘getting ripped.’

Finally, even when the signs are clear, many doctors are resistant to diagnose what they see as a female problem in their male patients. For example, in a recent study of British youths treated for eating disorders, one participant reported that his doctor simply told him to ‘man up.’ All these factors add up to a world in which men are less likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder than women are and in which those who do receive a diagnosis suffer long before doing so.

Today I’m at a significantly better weight than I was at 17. I’m not completely free of the urges that led me to starve myself, although I certainly have them under better control. But I know I wouldn’t have reached this point without people around me who recognized what was happening and encouraged me to choose a healthier lifestyle. Not every man is so fortunate. Combating male eating disorders requires changing our attitudes about the disease- recognizing the true scope of the problem, reversing negative stigmas about male sufferers, and understanding how male sufferers of eating disorders are and aren’t like their female counterparts. That’s the first step to a world where every man has the support to feel and be healthy about his diet and his body. 

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