Men with eating disorders: a very real problem

One of the greatest issues surrounding the crisis of eating disorders in the UK is the assumption that it is entirely a “female problem”. The number of adult men being admitted to hospital with an eating disorder has risen by 70% over the past six years, the same rate of increase as among women. Over 16,000 men and women were admitted to hospitals in the UK last year with eating disorders, the greatest spike in eight years. So why is it that we continue to see eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia as a woman-only problem? With estimates as high as 1 in 3 eating disorders being male, how can we fight the stigma attached to these mental illnesses before it’s too late?

The author Samuel Pollen has recently published a book titled “The Year I Didn’t Eat”, a fictional story based on real life events about a 14 year old boy struggling with anorexia. Pollen began suffering from anorexia at the age of 12, and describes his experience as having a “bad cop” voice inside your head that grows to be all-consuming. However, whilst pointing out the struggles of living with an eating disorder, Pollen’s message is an overall positive one. With the right support systems in place, Pollen believes that men and women can recover from this mental illness and live very successful lives. They arise “when people look at who they think society wants them or expects them to be and they see a mismatch”. This is why early intervention is so critical in tackling eating disorders, because “breaking patterns and behaviours is such a big part of the treatment”. The longer these behaviours are allowed to manifest themselves, the harder they are to break.

The societal pressures placed on women to look a certain way is thought to be one of the leading causes of eating disorders in the UK. But these same expectations exist for men, just under a different set of criteria. Pollen notes that “my eating disorder was very fitness based”. The early ‘90s grunge scene had popularised thinness in male bodies for the first time and this left Pollen feeling “conflicted” about his body. The traditional body builder-style physique was no longer desirable for men of his age, and this manifested itself in Pollen’s body dysmorphia. He remembers that “I wanted to be really muscly and thin and taller than I was”. Rhianna Lambert, a Harley Street nutritionist has argued there still exists a stereotype that eating disorders only apply to “privileged, appearance-obsessed women”, but that she has met “people of every race, gender, sexuality and personality with disordered eating patterns”. It is clear that there remains an ongoing gender bias in how we as a society look at eating disorders. If we continue to exclude half of the population in our fight against them, we will bear the consequences greatly.

With the rise of social media, more and more young people are exposed to eating-related disorders. Dr William Rhys Jones, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ eating disorders faculty has said: “pressure for body perfection is on the rise for men of all ages, which is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder. Images of unhealthy male body ideals in the media place unnecessary pressure on vulnerable people who strive for acceptance through the way they look.” Only just recently has Instagram been held accountable for allowing the promotion of life-threatening eating disorders on their site. Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity has said that: “so-called pro-ana and pro-mia content is widespread on social media and can be very harmful for people suffering from an eating disorder”. Whilst there is no evidence to suggest that those exposed to these types of images will all develop eating disorders, research has found that for those already suffering, this content is highly damaging.

So what can we do to solve this growing epidemic of male eating disorders in the UK? Well, Sam Thomas, founder of the charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too is seeking to raise awareness and provide support to the 10 to 25 per cent of eating disorder sufferers who do not fit the stereotype of
this not-so-female a problem. In addition to this, NHS England are investing an extra £30 million each year as part of a long term plan to tackle eating disorders in the UK, an investment that will surely help to de-stigmatise the problem of mental health among men. If we continue to make changes such as these, perhaps we will see a shift in focus for the young people of our society. Instead of glamourising these unhealthy behaviours, perhaps we will learn to treat them as the serious societal issue that they are. It is clear that regardless of gender, sex, race or religion, eating disorders are a very real problem in our society, and one that deserves our immediate attention.

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