This is a man’s world too

“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.

4 comments

  1. Really good article – well considered and well put. Would be useful if you could put the links to the various studies in the text (or comments..).

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  2. “Focusing on the trials of only one gender means focusing on only one half of the problem” – except, as you acknowledge, the problem overwhelmingly affects women, both in severity and frequency. Describing that this as an equal problem for both genders detracts from the fight against the misogyny exhibited in our culture’s attitude toward female bodies…

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  3. Great article. As many feminists seemingly fail to acknowledge, equality is for everyone and should be striven for for the benefit of the whole of society, not just women.

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  4. 29 Apr ’14 at 2:15 pm

    Isidore of Seville

    Anon, people do indeed often use ‘what about the men?’ as a derailing tactic to attack feminism, but I think it’s a bit unfair to accuse the author of doing so here. She actually pointed out that eating disorders primarily affect women and she’s not trying to undermine the argument that patriarchal society creates unachievable standards of body image for women, and she’s saying that we still need to fight eating disorders in women. Rather, she’s stating that men also suffer from eating disorders and explaining that their experience of it is also gendered (especially with regards to lack of awareness of the symptoms, and the fact that men more often experience it under the guise of bodybuilding or muscle gain rather than through weight loss alone) and that can be an obstacle in the way of diagnosis and treatment (and, hopefully, this article might raise some awareness, however small, that could lead to men with eating disorders recognising and getting treatment).

    It’d be one thing if she’d posted this as a comment under another article about anorexia and women, but she published this as a separate article and as far as I can tell, she’s trying to raise awareness of this as a distinct issue rather than at the expense of awareness of eating disorders as a primarily female-gendered experience.

    Also just for the record, Nick’s comment about feminism is hilariously clueless and misunderstands the entire point of marginalised groups fighting for their own liberation rather than some adorably inoffensive fuzzy liberal notion of ‘equality’.

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