Do Men Struggle With Eating Disorders Too?

men struggle with eating disorders - image of man wearing a baseball hat backwards, staring at the camera with a slight smile

As sad as it is, our culture has cultivated an obsessive infatuation with physical appearance and aesthetics. This infatuation involves a deep-rooted stigma surrounding an ‘ideal’ body. And the idea that our outward shape or image is directly tied to our worth. As humans, we care what other people think of us. We strive for acceptance in a world filled with complacency and comparison. Add athletics on top of that, and you’ve created an inescapable socio-cultural maze of aesthetic chasing, body checking, and disordered thinking. There has been a push to challenge these unrealistic beauty standards. Yet, the idea that men struggle with eating disorders is something that still appears as ‘uncommon’ or taboo. Thankfully, this idea has begun to shift.

Because ANYONE can struggle with disordered eating, and EVERYONE is deserving of help.

Our culture romanticizes men who keep emotions hidden and display strength through physicality. Just take any male protagonist in almost any book or movie for example.

Held to an unrealistic standard, men are taught they must suppress their emotions to comply with society’s norms. Such ill-faceted ideas contribute to a a rise in mental health problems among men of all ages. Particularly young boys and athletes.

Subsequently, four times as many young men take their own lives each year than young women. And the risk of mortality for males with eating disorders is much higher than that of females. Why has society labeled vulnerability as something so feminine? Why are we teaching young boys that suppressing their emotions makes them stronger or more masculine?

The Toll on Men who Struggle with Eating Disorders

Zach Stepanovich is a stellar example of the toll the stigma has taken on the male athlete. “From the moment you’re born, it’s ingrained in our culture, men don’t talk about their feelings,” he said in an interview with Cory Collins in 2015. Stepanovich and Collins both fell subject to disordered eating, largely cultivated by the nature of the sport in which they participated: competitive running. Stepanovich lost weight chasing the idea that “lighter means faster.” The lean physique that is glorified as the “ideal runner’s body” often leads athletes down a path of nutrient deprivation, overexercising, and starvation. Many athletes take on a “whatever it takes” mentality in pursuit of what is best described as a biomechanical or aesthetic advantage. (“How a Collegiate Runner Conquered the Growing Dilemma of Male Eating Disorders | Sporting News”).

The idea that “lighter means faster” has become widely known and even accepted as factual in sport. But just how true is it? Regardless of what that idea entails, it should never mean overexercising and under-fueling. It should never mean dropping below one’s natural weight set point, particular to every individual’s own body.

At first, when the number on the scale goes down, so do the times. Usually the athlete is commended for their performance. Cory Collins sums it up perfectly; “it’s like positive reinforcement to a negative training style. And it’s not until you get to extreme levels of energy deprivation that you know by the time you’ve reached that point you’re kind of too far.” (“How a Collegiate Runner Conquered the Growing Dilemma of Male Eating Disorders | Sporting News”).

Everybody is different.

The best weight for every body is different.

Ron Thompson, consulting psychologist for the Indiana University Athletic Department, identifies a multifaceted concern considering “so much of what we know about eating disorders is based on who comes to treatment.” Of the twenty-nine million people who suffer from eating disorders, only one in every ten will do so. Of said twenty-nine million, fifteen percent are male. (“How a Collegiate Runner Conquered the Growing Dilemma of Male Eating Disorders | Sporting News”).

Recognition that men DO struggle with eating disorders

It wasn’t until 1994 that men could even meet the diagnostic criteria of someone with an eating disorder when amenorrhea was removed as a necessary characteristic. Amenorrhea makes up one of the three tiers of what is known as the “Female Athlete Triad.” This is a very widely used indicator for physical health in women. The most obvious indicator has to do with the regularity or presence of one’s menstrual cycle, as it is the only piece of exogenous diagnostic criteria. This is part of the reason why it’s near impossible to identify if a male athlete is struggling with disordered eating from first glance. (“Eating Disorders in Male Athletes – Run Fast. Eat Slow.”)

Many psychologists have deemed runners to be predisposed to disordered eating. The disciplined, self-isolated nature of the sport coupled with the stigma placing value on the idea that “lighter means faster” presents a profusion of challenges. Running is a sport in which you are your number one competitor. How can we get faster and train harder? And how can we be better? Eating disorders take on the same mentality. With both, it is way too easy to become hyper focused on numbers. That is the obsessive nature of the sport. Times are measurable. Mileage is measurable. Weight is measurable. Calories are measurable.

Disorders among runners

Generally, it is much harder to detect eating disorders in runners. Because a number of disordered behaviors coincide with common idiosyncrasies of the sport itself. Many disordered behaviors are normalized or considered “desirable.” Therefore, they are not identified as symptoms. If an athlete is seen to be improving and excelling, the likelihood that they will be identified decreases almost exponentially. On top of that, athletes are much less likely to self-report their symptoms. Their bodies are well-conditioned and can handle a lot.

Men who battle eating disorders often find themselves with a worse prognosis than females. This could be attributable to the resources available to them (or lack thereof). Or simply the fear that they will be branded as “feminine.” At any given time, eating disorder treatment facilities prove difficult to get into. As they are typically met with a wait-list extending weeks, even months. Some facilities don’t even treat men.

So now I pose the following questions:

How is it that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, yet they are still so taboo? Why aren’t coaches equipped to handle issues like depression and eating disorders, especially in men? And why is it so widely believed that men can’t struggle with disordered eating and bad body image?

Everyone, regardless of gender, deserves treatment.

All feelings are valid, and should be treated as such. If we can change the stigma and provide more support for anyone seeking it, we can promote longevity and emphasize mental (and physical) well being.

References:

(Collins)

Collins, Cory Everett. “On Eating Disorders, Dumbbells and Boys | by Cory Everett Collins | Invisible Illness | Medium.” Medium, Invisible Illness, 16 Dec. 2015, https://medium.com/invisible-illness/on-eating-disorders-dumbbells-and-boys-3c28e3e8e205#.a8on1oko7.

(“Cory Collins on Battling an Eating Disorder, Male Eating Disorder Research – Citius Mag”)

“Cory Collins on Battling an Eating Disorder, Male Eating Disorder Research – Citius Mag.” Citius Mag, http://facebook.com/citiusmag/, 18 June 2017, http://citiusmag.com/battling-eating-disorders-male-research-cory-collins-interview/.

(“Eating Disorder Information and Statistics”)

“Eating Disorder Information and Statistics.” Effective Alternative Eating Disorder Treatment, https://www.mirasol.net/learning-center/eating-disorder-statistics.php. Accessed 20 Dec. 2020.

(“Eating Disorders in Male Athletes – Run Fast. Eat Slow.”)

“Eating Disorders in Male Athletes – Run Fast. Eat Slow.” Run Fast. Eat Slow., https://runfasteatslow.com/blogs/news/eating-disorders-in-male-athletes. Accessed 20 Dec. 2020.

(“Eating Disorders in Sport – Eating Disorders Catalogue”)

“Eating Disorders in Sport – Eating Disorders Catalogue.” Eating Disorders Catalogue, https://www.edcatalogue.com/eating-disorders-sport/. Accessed 20 Dec. 2020.

(“How a Collegiate Runner Conquered the Growing Dilemma of Male Eating Disorders | Sporting News”)

“How a Collegiate Runner Conquered the Growing Dilemma of Male Eating Disorders | Sporting News.” Sporting News – NFL | NBA | MLB | NCAA | NASCAR | UFC | Boxing, 4AD, https://www.sportingnews.com/us/other-sports/news/eating-disorders-runners-long-distance-running-male-anorexia-zachary-stepanovich/1bwthjj8bzkj91t048o4issf4m.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01639621003748860. Accessed 20 Dec. 2020

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2 Comments

  1. says: Annonomous

    I am a male and suffer from an ED for 13 years. It’s consumed my life untill I made a promise not to listen to what “society” said I should be and will now be who I WANT to be!

    Thank you for this amazing article, really spoke to me

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