Disordered Eating: Let’s Talk About Men for a Minute
When we think about eating disorders, we don’t usually think of men. We think of the many millions of women and girls across the globe struggling with food and their bodies.
Body image issues and disordered eating are often thought to be a “woman’s problem.” We see the ribs of supermodels on the catwalk and hear the rumors of them eating cotton balls so they don’t feel hungry. We see our mothers starting new diets every week, and our sisters counting every last calorie.
However, it might surprise you to learn that an estimated 10-15% of people with anorexia or bulimia are male. Even more surprising, men account for roughly 40% of binge eaters.
And that’s just the men who have been diagnosed.
Because of the widespread belief that eating disorders are for females only, the signs are often missed in men. When he is counting calories or exercising for hours each day, he thinks he is just being “healthy.” If he mindlessly overeats his dinner, he chalks it up to a “bad day.” But the rate of disordered eating and body image issues in men is rising rapidly, and it’s for the same reasons as the women.
Society is telling men and boys what the “ideal man” should look like.
It’s not just women who see supermodels half their size in magazines and on television. Every day, men see ridiculously buff superheroes in the movies (who always get the girl in the end). When they walk into a clothing store, they see a lean and “ripped” shirtless man staring off into the sunset on a life-size poster, usually with a pretty girl close by his side.
And they’re not just being told what their bodies should look like. They’re also being told how a “real man” should behave.
They are not commonly encouraged to reach out for help. They are taught from a young age that they need to be “strong;” in other words, they should be able to handle any issue on their own. How many times have you heard someone being told to “man up?”
Even in the world of mental health professionals, the stigma that “eating disorders are for girls” still exists. It wasn’t until 2013 that the American Psychiatric Association formally recognized binge eating disorder (BED), which affects almost as many men as women. Because of this, men have long been misdiagnosed and given the incorrect treatment (if any treatment at all).
When it comes to issues with food and our bodies, we now understand that men and women are not so different. The warning signs are very similar:
- Using food as a drug to numb emotions
- Extreme or constant dieting
- Excessive exercising
- Self-hatred and low self-esteem
- Lack of control around food
Despite the symptoms being much the same for both sexes, the truth is that it’s often harder to spot these behaviors in men.
Since they don’t want to appear weak, men will often fudge the truth. They’ll say that they are not exercising too much – they’re just “taking care of their bodies.” They claim that they don’t have low self-esteem – they just have a self-deprecating sense of humor. They don’t recognize that they are using food as a drug – they just want to reward themselves with a whole pizza at the end of a long day.
The Good News
Thankfully, men have just as much capacity for healing from eating disorders and body image issues as women.
It’s important, for males and females alike, to first understand that they need help. Their issues will not magically disappear as soon as they hit their “target weight” or fit into a certain size. When men courageously seek help for the problems that they are facing, their chances of recovery skyrocket.
The most common type of treatment is counseling. Healing the emotional wounds that caused the disorder is absolutely critical. We cannot put a band-aid on a bullet wound and expect our problems to be forever resolved.
We all deserve to live our lives free from shame and guilt about food and our bodies. Both men and women can learn to once again use food for health and hunger, and not for distraction or the illusion of control. We can all work together to make sure that self-love and compassion are the driving forces within us, propelling us toward the peace and freedom that we were meant to experience all along.
Images Courtesy of iStock