Why Have Eating Disorders Become Gendered?
In a recent survey of young men, it was determined that 1 in 5 men were concerned about their weight. According to The Times UK, “Government figures released a few week ago revealed that for the first time, the number of boys receiving treatment for eating disorders is rising twice as fast as the rate of increase among girls.” Given these striking numbers, why do we continue to hear eating disorders discussed in a context that suggests it is a female-focused disease and what effect is that having on men and boys? The Times suggests that as a result of this gender bias, doctors, teachers and parents have failed to recognize the traditional warning signs of eating disorders in men and boys. Considering early intervention is the single best predictor of recovery, lack of early identification and intervention is detrimental to our young men and boys. The article goes on to interview an individual named Mark who recounts such an experience. Mark reported that when he stopped eating at age 12, “my parents and teachers did not seem worried. For two years no one used the word ‘anorexia’.” While Mark did ultimately seek treatment, the process of simply reaching out for support can be challenging for young men. Culturally, boys are less likely to express emotional difficulties. When coupled with stigma of E.D. as a female disease, it is no surprise that many boys and men are more inclined to hide their struggles. Once treatment has been initiated, the gender bias continues to make recovery a struggle for young boys and men. Mark goes on to recount his experience when seeking treatment for anorexia. “I was sitting in the therapy room, surrounded by teenage girls, listening to a nurse explain why your periods stop when you have anorexia,” he says. “I’ve never had periods — I’m a 15-year-old boy. It’s this kind of girlie environment whenever I try to get help, and it reinforces the message that I’m a weirdo with a feminine illness.”
While there is a lack of provisions for males in treatment, a number of organizations and providers are doing their part to change the dialogue, the treatment and the therapeutic milieu. Awareness about male eating disorders is beginning to spread. In 2008, in the UK, Labour Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott admitted that he had suffered from bulimia. Piggybacking off of this show of honesty and strength, politician Brooks Newmark began speaking out about his experience with anorexia. Charities aimed at supporting men living with eating disorders have begun to gain more ground, one such charity being, “Men Get Eating Disorders Too”, which offers advice and support to males living with eating disorders. More light is being shed on the fact that, as with female standards of physical beauty, few boys feel they can measure up to the images of perfection (toned, tan, lean) they see on social media outlets and the mainstream media. These images are just as powerful and dangerous for men as those observed by females. In an environment where social media is pervasive and comparison is constant, boys growing up today are more body-conscious than ever.
Let’s continue this meaningful work by accepting the fact that eating disorders are gender-neutral. We must offer the young boys and men of our community a very simple message: “speaking up and seeking help is the bravest and sanest way to stop an eating disorder in its tracks.”
About the Author: Melissa Gerson, LCSW is the Founder and Clinical Director of Columbus Park, Manhattan’s leading outpatient center for the treatment of eating disorders. As a comprehensive outpatient resource for individuals of all ages, they offer individual therapy, targeted groups, daily supported meals and an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP). Columbus Park uses the most effective, evidence-based treatments like Enhanced CBT and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) to treat binge eating, emotional eating, bulimia, anorexia and other food or weight-related struggles. They track patient outcomes closely so they can speak concretely about their success in guiding our patients to recovery.