Women disproportionately are affected by eating disorders (ED), especially if they are white, young, and affluent. The Pope is Catholic. One of these is false. Take a guess.
As a male recovered from rounds of binge eating, anorexic behavior, exercise bulimia, and more binge eating, that first premise kept me out of treatment for over 20 years. That’s why I’m always grateful for the few studies published that discuss males with eating disorders. The most recent one came out titled “The changing demographic profile of eating disorder behaviors in the community,” by Mitchison et al (BMC Public Health 2014, 14:943). See the full report by clicking the link at the bottom of this commentary.
In the study, researchers in Australia examined general population surveys that looked at gender, age, income, and urban/rural geography as well as current eating disorder behaviors of restriction, purging, and binge eating, along with a quality of life questionnaire. These surveys were done in 1998 and 2008. While there is a lot of great information about variances and changes in rural vs. urban differences, and those above and below the median income, I’m focused on the issue of men here.
Of note to share:
- men have greater mental health repercussions and rate their quality of life lower than females among those who binge eat
- the prevalence of extreme dieting and purging increased at a faster rate in men compared to women
- men appear to be “catching up” to women in the prevalence of severe weight and shape control symptoms, such as the dietary practice of fasting for long hours and the purging practices of self-induced vomiting and laxative abuse
What they discuss as possible contributing factors include:
- the portrayal of EDs in the media as predominantly affecting women inadvertently contributing to increased stigma associated with disordered eating in men
- inadequate access to resources and narrow demographic target of existing resources (i.e. young females), could partly explain less treatment seeking and under-detection of EDs in males
“These findings offer clear counter-evidence to the historic stereotype that EDs are suffered by young upper-class females,” the study concludes.
Let me share my own take on these contributing factors. As the Board Vice President for the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders, I’ve had the opportunity to help with our latest press release regarding the DirectTV commercial featuring the “skinny armed Rob Lowe.” The Rob Lowe with the slender arms is presented as inferior and a loser because of his size. Of note, males split near evenly in having underlying body image issues of believing themselves to be too small or too big. There has been no perceivable uproar to date about this commercial. But what would happen if the ad focused on a woman who was shamed for having thighs too large to be worthy of DirectTV? Backlash! This happens over and over in our media messages, where men are caricatures of too thin or too fat, with no voices stepping up to say it’s wrong. This is not to say those same messages are not sent to women, but there is a loud, and growing louder, voice out there saying “f*&k that!” It’s just not there yet for men.
And as a result of this gender ambivalence, there are very few resources for men to draw from. Whether it’s books, social media posts, research articles (less than 7% of all ED research involve males), or treatment programs, men are left out. And the result is men don’t seek help despite the growing evidence they struggle and suffer every bit as much with eating disorders as those young, white, privileged women we used to envision.
To learn more, the study is below along with links for additional resources.
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 443-602-6515 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.