I’m heading home right now after attending the Binge Eating Disorder Association Conference in Hollywood, FL. There were some good programs, inspired speakers, and a lot of good camaraderie. What continues to be missed is the experience of males with BED. I spent much of the time in meeting rooms educating colleagues and advocates alike in the male experience.
Let me share a few key points.
- Men report binge eating behavior nearly as frequently as women. The difference is that men normalize the experience of “downing a bucket of wings” and dismiss it as not a big deal. Binge eating and then restricting the next day or doing double workouts is part of everyday life for guys. Skipping meals to focus on work for the sake of productivity and then gorging at night is equally normed. The result of the unbalanced eating is metabolic changes leading to increased body fat, and then private body shame. Crash diets ensue and lead to increased binges as a result. The weight-cycling roller coaster is at full speed.
- Binge eating is already a secretive disease, filled with shame, especially for those who are obese or morbidly obese. We want nothing more than to be thought of us dominant and powerful. But men often report feeling like they are weak for succumbing to a binge drive. Weakness is a sign of failed masculinity. And in male culture, being compared to a girl or woman is among the worst insults that can be dealt. Really, being called a “pussy” is often grounds for a physical altercation. So refraining from any signs of weakness, as well as bypassing any attempt at seeking help or comfort from others, are the heart of male culture. Denial of an eating disorder, especially BED, is thus the norm.
- Binge eating is often seen occurring with other disorders in men such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and other binge behaviors like alcohol, drugs, exercise, work, sex, and spending. It’s a way to numb out the stress of work obligations, competition for wealth/esteem/accolades, and a nagging fear of not measuring up to personal expectations or the expectations of others (often a father or father figure).
- Being bigger is a desire of half of all me, whether for athletic pursuits or to enhance their sense of masculinity. Many males in athletics will pursue increased calories at a young age to reach their size goals but eventually age out or can no longer compete in their sport. The eating behaviors remain and lead to unwanted weight gain, body shame, and the yo-yo dieting experience yet again. That weight gain comes in body fat accumulation, not muscularity, and that feels feminine in its roundness and softness. Again, that is a source of terrible shame for males. Developing gynecomastia, or male breasts, is a major psychological issue for many men, and can be the source of significant bullying and resultant self-harm.
- The purpose of a binge for many men may be self-soothing, but it can also take several other forms such as distraction, self-harm, enhancing joyful moments, boredom, sating an obsessional thought, and even acting as a form of self-harm. While this may not be any different from how women may use binge eating, many men will not plumb the depths of their thoughts and feelings that lead to it. They are more likely to attempt to quickly “fix” the behavior, and are more susceptible to relapse without the benefit of insight.
- Soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq report BED and bulimic behaviors at an alarming rate when they return home. The military estimates up to 45 percent of soldiers, the majority of whom are male, are suffering with little options for treatment.
Being a guy comes with a lot of pressure to “man up,” be strong, powerful and devoid of emotions. Dominate. Excel. Don’t show weakness. Binge eating just doesn’t leave room for that kind of thinking. It requires an acknowledgement of a brain disease, of a need for help, of being vulnerable, of owning one’s emotions and hurts, and finding personal acceptance to get healthy in body, mind and spirit. It means embracing our whole self, masculine and feminine alike, and ultimately believing that doing so is actually the core of our greatest strength.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C - Founder, Executive Director, Psychotherapist at The Body Image Therapy Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call 877-674-2843 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.