“Anorexia was weaving its own cancer upon me. The only thing… close is drowning.” These are the words of recovering anorexic Ashley, who, incidentally, is also a man. Surprised? You shouldn’t be.
It is true that eating disorders are statistically more common in women. An estimated 1 in 250 women are affected by them compared to 1 in 2000 men. However, that doesn’t mean the 160,000 – 400,000 male sufferers should be overlooked – after all, they need support too. Yet a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Oxford and University of Glasgow found men with eating disorders are often “underdiagnosed [and] undertreated”. One interviewee was even told to “man up” after seeking treatment.
And therein lies the problem: eating disorders are commonly seen as a “female issue”, a misconception reinforced by the media. This is not only a ridiculous notion but a dangerous one, as it means male sufferers are less likely to admit they have an eating disorder because they don’t want to be seen as “feminine” or “weak”. According to the study, it also means men are less likely to be aware of the symptoms. If men are unable to admit, or even recognise, they have a problem, how are they supposed to get the help they need?
Eating disorder stereotypes are not just damaging to the men who suffer in silence of a result of stigma; it arguably puts extra strain on the NHS too. Eating disorders cost the NHS £50-70m a year, which could be reduced by earlier diagnosis in both genders.
Of course, we should treat the new findings with caution; there were only 39 participants. However, they draw much needed attention to the way society handles eating disorders. Recent campaigns aimed at tackling them have blamed the pressure placed on young girls to look a certain way. It’s great they’ve helped reduce the promotion of unrealistic body shapes, but they can only ever have a limited impact. For one thing, the illness isn’t always about getting thinner – that’s another (unfortunately very popular) myth. It is also worrying that most of these campaigns have looked exclusively at how women are portrayed in the media, how women are affected by said portrayals and how eating disorders can be reduced in women. Focusing on the trials of only one gender means focusing on only one half of the problem, and reinforcing misconceptions means we can’t address the issue effectively.
Leanne Thorndyke, from the charity Beat, reminds us that men feel “pressure… to have the ‘ideal’ body” too, raising interesting questions about the gendering of certain issues. Nobody seems to worry about Hollister’s topless male models even though 43 per cent of men are said to be dissatisfied with their bodies. Domestic violence against men doesn’t get the attention it deserves either, and the depiction of female violence in the media doesn’t help. When a woman attacks a man, it is seen as empowering – or even sexually alluring. (Incidentally, it’s double standards like this which undermine modern day feminism.) Argue that women are weaker if you want to but that doesn’t negate the fact that violence against men – whether physical or psychological – can be equally damaging to its victims. Yet because it’s another “female issue”, men are often reluctant to report it.
Maybe women do face more pressure from society to look and act a certain way, and maybe they’re more vulnerable in certain situations. However, we need to recognise that men face pressures too instead of ridiculing them, or else they will never get the help they deserve.