The widespread perception that only women suffer from eating disorders has ill-effects on men who also suffer from problems such as anorexia and bulimia. A new study in BMJ Open points out that many men don’t seek help because eating disorders are perceived to be a “female problem”. This means they sometimes don’t identify their symptoms correctly and can face challenges discussing their problems with friends, family and healthcare professionals.
Eating disorders in men are understudied, though male cases make up 10% of reported eating disordered cases in the UK. Qualitative research is needed in particular. This means talking to people about their experiences, rather than measuring frequency and identifying patterns.
Not a women’s issue
It’s important that we gain a better understanding of why men perceive eating disorders to be a “women’s issue” so that it doesn’t stay that way – which is a real danger in western society today.
My own work with men and eating disorders is about exploring their experiences. So, whenever something new emerges I look to see what’s challenging, what’s confirmed and how a new piece of insight might just shift our larger understanding of men and their relationships with their bodies, minds, food and society.
In this new report, young men were interviewed about how they made sense of the symptoms they experienced, how they came to understand that something was wrong, their perceptions of barriers to care and what they experienced from the healthcare professionals who initially dealt with their cases. All of the men involved took a long time to recognise their symptoms as signs of an eating disorder. These experiences have been echoed elsewhere and in the male eating disorder stories I’ve analysed.
Persistent sexism in society
Even if this research isn’t wholly surprising, it raises many questions. Why do men feel so “feminised” in the face of an eating disorder? What are we doing to change the fact that we still have a society that has raised men to believe that there can even be such a thing as a feminine mental health condition? Why do we continue to raise our boys and girls to tread such a narrow path of identity that when they grow up the lads daren’t go to a doctor for fear of ridicule that they have a “women’s illness”?
Slightly scarier still, why is having a “women’s illness” such a bad thing? Let’s suppose an eating disorder really was a “women’s issue” then, eating disorder aside, what have we done to our men to make them believe that being anything like a woman is bad or something to feel ashamed about? Apparently, we are in complete denial about the sexism that continues to be deeply instilled in boys by the society that’s supposed to nurture and enlighten them.
What’s really scary
The real shocker here is not the identity crisis that an eating disorder brings on when it challenges the masculinity we so passionately expect of men. This is relatively understandable. No, the real story here is the response that some (not all, I hasten to add) men received once they summoned up the gumption to get help from a professional. In this new research we find the experiences men report when finally seeing a health professional. One of which was a doctor telling the patient to “man up” or stop being weak.
The earlier questions I raised about men feeling like they have a female disorder take on an altogether uglier, deeper feel when we look at this closer. So, it’s not just the men themselves who feel weak or “feminine”, some of our healthcare provision does to.
It seems sexism may be rife in mental health services if a worrying few believe that the way to recover from something as life-consuming and debilitating as an eating disorder is a hefty dose of British grit, a reminder to be more of a man and firm, if figurative, boot up the backside to make sure weakness is shown the door. And so the very messages that stop some men even asking for help in the first place are perpetuated.
It’s important that more people learn that eating disorders are a men’s, as well as a women’s, issue, not least because prognosis is improved with early detection. It’s especially important, it would seem, in the case of some of the staff who care for us when we as eating-disordered men (myself included) finally fall into the abyss or gather the courage to get help.
This article first appeared on The Conversation on 9 April, 2014.