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Voices from the dark: The stigma behind male eating disorders

Trigger warning: this article contains references to eating disorders, which some readers might find distressing.

Luke Unger investigates the prevalence of eating disorders in men, an issue significantly underrepresented in comparison to that in women.

Beginning to write an article about the stigma behind male eating disorders daunted me somewhat. While a couple of my friends had experienced eating disorders before, both of these friends were women and therefore I knew absolutely zero about the problem from the male perspective.

Having spoken briefly to Ed Southgate, Comment Editor for Epigram, about his struggle with anorexia it was clear that not enough help is currently being given to men with eating disorders. In fact, the eating disorder charity, Beat, found that typically, men have to wait two times as long to receive help for an eating disorder than women. That is simply ridiculous.

Thankfully I have never suffered from any sort of eating disorder. However my absence of experience left me in a position where I felt so uninformed that, personally, if I were to write an article about this issue from my perspective, it would be insulting to those who have suffered first hand.

If I went swimming, I'd dread changing rooms at P.E or any sort of physical activity that would make me stand out

I decided the best approach to this topic was to speak to the people who have actually suffered with these problems. The stigma behind male eating disorders is clearly an issue problematic due to either lack of exposure or simply society ignoring the problem. With this in mind, I have collected a series of stories from men who have suffered from eating disorders in a bid to draw attention to the serious problem that men face.

The first person I spoke to was a journalist and student named Shane Kenneally. He had written an article last year titled ‘Men Experience Eating Disorders Too. Let’s Not Silence Them’ in the University Times, an Irish publication. The article was brutally honest about Kenneally’s unhealthy relationship with food and was really my first insight into the the problem that we face. Chatting over messages about his past, he was as honest in real life as he was in the article.

How did your eating disorder start? How bad did it get? Do you think it has gotten better?

“So I would say around age 7 or 8 I noticed that I wasn't the same as size as the other kids in the class, and then that gets compounded as you get bigger and bigger while everyone else seems to grow taller and skinnier over the years.

So to say when it "started" is sort of difficult because it almost felt like a intrusive thought that just grew bigger and bigger until it becomes deafening. by about age 12/13/14 I would say it was at its worst in terms of always dominating my psyche and my thoughts and influencing what I wore, what I ate, if I let people see me eat etc. If I went swimming, I'd dread changing rooms at P.E or any sort of physical activity that would make me stand out.”

“It never got to the point where I needed medical help or anything, but I would have teachers and friends being concerned and certainly experienced constant fatigue and dehydration.

In terms of it getting better, I felt like the last two years or so I felt very in control when actually I would say I was the opposite, I was healthy, I would gym a lot, I wouldn't eat junk food like pizza etc, and I thought that was positive, when actually it’s incredibly restrictive and quite mentally punishing as you have to constantly guilt yourself if you stray from this regiment. Thankfully I feel that I'm more in control now but it never will be something not in my mind, I hate to say it but I’ve had it so long its sort of a part of me”

Why do you think this stigma exists?

“I think a stigma exists with men and eating disorders for a number of reasons. One being that eating disorders are seen as being exclusively an ailment of women, which I think is a by-product of beauty being seen as thinness in a woman and ripped musculature in a man.

So it begs the question why would a man want to be skinny, why would he want to look like a woman? And then on top of that I think some people can associate male eating disorders as being the domain of gay man which is obviously just not the case. I think men in general often find it difficult to talk about mental health so when that mental health issue literally translates to the food on your plate then people can be a tad cynical and see it as a less debilitating issue.

So this eating disorder then made me into a liar and I was able to manipulate those around me all just to avoid a meal

In addition, men are stereotyped as loving "manly foods" big steaks, burgers, chips etc and the same for alcohol: beer over vodka - you get what I mean. So even having to order a salad as a man, if I'm at dinner with male friends, can be a bit of an embarrassing experience.

An afterthought to this is also that when men are fat or a little overweight it's not seen as "as big a deal" as it would be for a woman. So, people can overlook how damaging it might be for someone to not be their "desired" weight, simple because of their gender”

From speaking to Shane, his opinions regarding the reason behind the stigma were compelling. I hadn’t yet considered the gendering of food affecting how and what we eat. Furthermore, I had not been aware of the apparently more noticeable problem of eating disorders within the gay community.

Looking to find more people who had suffered from eating disorders within the LGBT community, I posted on Facebook asking if anyone knew friends of friends who would like to talk. To my surprise a guy named Harry Fox, who I had previously worked with for nearly a year, messaged me, saying that he’d be willing to chat to me about his experience. I was surprised because I had worked with Harry back at home and had never had any notion that he was suffering from an eating disorder.

Harry began by telling me about his experience with bulimia.

“It started when I was around 15. I had this image in my mind that skinny was deemed attractive or most desirable. So it started off basically because of vanity. It did however develop considerably, I became bulimic and felt the need to vomit after every meal to the point it was uncontrollable yet very easy to hide.

So this eating disorder then made me into a liar and I was able to manipulate those around me all just to avoid a meal. I do think it has gotten better - though sometimes I do relapse with my bulimia it's not as severe”

Asking why he thought eating disorders were such a huge problem within the gay community he answered:
“I believe this is mainly due to the gay community being obsessed with labels. As a gay man I am considered a ‘twink’ so I had to remain skinny and young looking thus this adding to my already fucked up outlook on my body already.

It also works with people who are labelled as a Fem (being considered more womanly than manly) and to seem more like this I know people who have had ribs removed to get an hour glass feminine body. So yeah labels and gay and lesbians most of the time are very appearance based and if you’re not hot you will judged body more than face”

Having previously known nothing about gay body stereotypes I was confused at how such an apparently body positive community could have such a catastrophic issue. I asked him whether he felt it was easy to talk about within the community.

”The gay community is a bitchy community, so it is hard to approach people who have it. But society now is much more accepting of everyone and this can be seen in tv shows with the protagonist not being a white perfect looking man. But instead showing everyone's imperfections as a perfection. So I believe we are on the right track to dealing with it”
I asked him why he thought this stigma surrounding the issue remains. He replied:

“Because it is considered a women's issue. Because of industries such as ballet, models, gymnasts and actresses. For a man to have it makes it "emasculating". They are considered weak if they have an eating disorder.

The stigma around eating disorders themselves is due to the lack of understanding about it as many people think we force yourself to starve or vomit, when in actually fact it is a mental disorder and for myself anyway I didn't have the physical capability of eating as food made me feel sick thus if I ate I was sick."

I asked him what advice he’d give to men suffering from similar issues.

“My message to men is literally just get help. Specifically, someone and only one person to start you can trust. Someone who can monitor what you're eating and when and how much and watch you do it, so you can't hide it”

Cameron Reid also messaged me after the initial Facebook advert was put out onto the Bristol LGBT Facebook page.

“My eating disorder started largely at the age of 17. Think it may have originated as a child from never really eating with my mum, she always had small meals and my meals never really had much nutritional value due to not having much money.

eating disorders are wrongly considered female issues, usually teenagers and about vanity and therefore boys and men of all ages face the hurdle of being judged and misunderstood

At 17 I worked for Toni and Guy which showcases a lot of the fashion weeks all over the world on their televisions and their channel- (including bikini runways) which all had size 0- models. fashion magazines were always at hand and also the pressure of looking the part for the company had a huge impact.”

I asked him what the worst period of time was.

“For ten years now my weight has constantly fluctuated. To get me through this, I’ve learnt to stop counting calories, fats, sugars etc, stop weighing myself (from 3times+ daily to now 1/2 times a month, threw away my tape measures etc. So now yes, I consider myself getting through this but I still have days that I don’t eat due to stress, control reasons.

Personally, I don’t really class my eating disorder to be anything connected to my sexuality, it may change for others but I feel mine is stemmed from being in control of my own life and when I’m in pain emotionally it’s triggered.”

Over the course of my research I have spoken to an unforeseeably large number of guys, gay and straight, suffering from this issue. To get a broader sense of the treatment for male Eating disorders, I was able to contact the CEO of Anorexia and Bulimia Care, Jane Smith and propose a series of questions I had regarding the issue.

Through your organisation are you seeing more men come forward with these problems?

“Not really, there’s a small shift forward but 98% of our service users were female in 2017. 12% of our carers getting in touch are male.”

What percentage of men with eating disorders do you think the ones who come forward make up?

“I don’t think we can say. There’s a huge unmet need for women coming forward and men are even slower to come forward for a number of reasons, stigma of course.”

Why do you think the stigma exists?

“Eating disorders are wrongly considered female issues, usually teenagers and about vanity and therefore boys and men of all ages face the hurdle of being judged and misunderstood, even by health professionals, as well as by their peers.”

What is the best approach for dealing with this issue considering its scale?

“We need the media to concentrate more on the real, complex and understandable causes and triggers of eating disorders in all ages and genders and not to sensationalize or trivialize them and the consequences. We need to train all doctors in eating disorders as they are often the first port of call.

it is only by starting this discussion that we will ever be able to achieve this vitally needed change, a change that for many men, could save their life

Sadly it’s still possibly to qualify as a doctor with no training in eating disorders and of course eating disorders have the highest mortality of any age within mental health. ABC has written the only training for doctors through the RCGP with an average 33% rise in those completing it.”

“We have also written guidelines for the major UK fitness associations, as men tend not to restrict eating in traditional ways when developing an eating disorder, but to over-train, with serious consequences – even including an creased risk of suicide due to pain desensitization. We want personal trainers, Fitness Instructors and gym managers to be aware of eating disorders particularly in men and know how to prevent and support.
This includes how to speak to a client, what policies and procedures a gym has and who to signpost a client to for expert professional help as well as gym’s marketing and ethos.”

While I was not able to include all the conversation I had with all of the men I spoke to, due to either a personal choice or simply a lack of space within the article, it is clearly evident that this conversation needs to occur on an international stage imminently.

The society in which we live in is certainly improving socially; The ways in which we view body image, how we view sexuality and how we view gender are all changing rapidly for the better. But why is it then that men are categorically being left behind when dealing with these issues?

I hold no illusion that this article will change things dramatically. However, it is only by starting this discussion that we will ever be able to achieve this vitally needed change, a change that for many men, could save their life.

Featured image: Flickr / Melody Ann Crespo

If you find that you relate to the information in this article, don't hesitate to get in touch with Epigram Wellbeing for more information on who to contact, or call the Student Counselling Service on (0)117 394 0123.

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