Men and Eating Disorders

Posted on March 15, 2017

Photo: flickr

Females are not the only “victims” of eating disorders. In fact, approximately 10 million men around the world can be clinically diagnosed with eating disorders. However, due to our own misconceptions about eating disorders and the social stigmas that result, many men are embarrassed by their issues and would rather suffer in silence. People often think that men who suffer from eating disorders are not “real men”. It is thus very likely that many undocumented cases of male eating disorders exist, and that the numbers are higher than reported.

Sadly, even when men find the courage to seek help, doctors might not acknowledge that they are suffering from eating disorders, and could misdiagnose them. When Frank, who has had bulimia since childhood and is now in his sixties, finally sought help, his doctor presumed that his daily vomiting was due to spontaneous vomiting and not self-induced vomiting, as was his case. The doctor then ordered for several invasive medical procedures to be carried out to figure out the root of the problem. Frank was too ashamed to tell the doctor otherwise; he would rather sit through the tests than feel even more humiliated than he already was.
In society, the masculine image is defined by a toned, muscular body with six-pack abs and smooth skin. Men are also pressured to conform to these stereotypes, and such idealised images lead to increased dissatisfaction with the way they look. A recent study found that close to half of all men are unhappy with their body image, and 18 percent of boys are highly critical of the way they look. Body dissatisfaction, though not a direct cause, has been thought to lead to eating disorders.

A psychoanalytic take on things postulates that the harmful behaviours associated with eating disorders, including cutting calories, exercising excessively, bingeing and purging, are a way for people to show or cope with unpleasant emotions and thoughts. In other words, they are not just symptoms. They communicate something the person cannot or does not wish to express. The behaviours of eating disorders convert emotions and needs to physical feelings or issues. Some choose to eat till they are in physical pain, instead of expressing their emotional pain. Others may feel upset or disappointed in others, but choose to channel this disappointment towards themselves. The behaviours classified by eating disorders become a means of coping with these hidden thoughts, but that is hardly a way out.
This is especially so for men, because societal norms dictate that men should only express “active” emotions such as anger and aggression; expressing “passive” emotions such as sadness and fear are regarded as signs of weakness. Many men do yearn for comfort and do feel unhappy, but they believe that they should not feel this way or let their vulnerabilities show. Such stereotypes cause men to hide their emotions in harmful behaviours; some bury their loneliness in food, for example. It is thus clear that while the symptoms of eating disorders may be at the forefront of a diagnosis, it is the underlying problems that should also be addressed. It must be reinforced that these symptoms can be treated effectively as long as the core issues are tackled. Once men seek help and open up regarding the emotions that they have bottled, the symptoms can often be alleviated or stemmed. Frank, for instance, stopped purging once he learnt how to put words to his emotions and talked about what he was feeling.

While many of the symptoms surrounding eating disorders are the same regardless of gender, there are some that are specific to men. They might 1) be overly concerned with weight-lifting, body-building and muscle-building, 2) continue weight-lifting even when they are injured, 3) experience muscular weakness, 4) feel stressed and anxious when they are unable to keep to their workout schedule, 5) use anabolic steroids, 6) have lower levels of testosterone and 7) experience a decreased interest in sexual activities.

Ultimately, it is important for us to acknowledge that eating disorders are universal: anyone can suffer from it, and help is available.

Category(s):Eating Disorders

Source material from Psychology Today

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