NHS statistics released this week documented that eating disorders in men have increased by 70% in the UK, finding that these illnesses are rising at the same rate in young men as they are in young women. The media has been inundated with headlines discussing this rise in male eating disorders pointing towards causes such as social media and rise of body image pressures on men and boys within modern society as a way to understand this phenomenon. While there is no doubt that such issues may have an influence on such a sharp rise in men experiencing such illnesses, male eating disorders are not a new phenomenon, simply one that has been “underdiagnosed, undertreated, and misunderstood” (Strother, Lemberg & Tuberville, 2012). A study in 2007 estimated that up to 25% of individuals with eating disorders were male, with underdiagnoses being debated due to the low number of men within services.
Research into the reasons why people develop these illnesses have developed steadily in recent years with evidence suggesting that the similarities outweigh the differences between genders with regards to the core features and psychology of eating disorders. With treatment outcomes reported as equally successful for men as for women, Dr Una Foye asks the question remains why this “sudden” increase?
The 2013 release of the DSM 5 (that sets how mental health disorders are diagnosed by doctors), resulted in momentous change for eating disorders. For example when amenorrhea (loss of monthly periods) was removed as a necessary criteria for doctors to diagnose anorexia, this made diagnosis of anorexia in men a possibility. Changes like this have created significant waves in the area to give a voice to a topic that has been previously overlooked in both research and policy. We now can see traditionally female focused work such as eating disorder prevention programmes being targeted to support young men and body image issues. More attention has also been paid to fully understanding how the symptoms of these illnesses might look different for men, e.g. muscle dysmorphia (a preoccupation with not being sufficiently muscular or lean (when this is not the case).
The advocacy and awareness work of Eating Disorders charities such as Men Get Eating Disorders Too, B-eat and The Laurence Trust in the UK, seems to have contributed to a change in the narrative of these illnesses moving from socially seeing them as “a women’s illness” towards being seen as a mental health problem that can affect anyone. No longer are stories of thin, white girls being the only image of eating disorders in the media. Instead, the spectrum of genders, diagnoses and ethnicities that are affected by these illnesses are being represented. This allows us to break down myths and create awareness of all people affected by eating disorders in order to allow us to connect with an image and truth that applies to ourselves, thus making it more acceptable. Films such as the recently released ‘To The Bone’ or stories seen in magazines often place a focus on the traditional image of eating disorders being young, white, middle class girls with anorexia, making the awareness less acceptable to anyone who doesn’t fit that mould. However, reading experiences such as Dave Chawner’s in the Guardian article, Nigel Owens in the recent BBC documentary or Zayn Malik’s openness of his personal experience might help to reflect how men are experiencing these problems and to trigger that thought that maybe men can get eating disorders too.
As Dave says “I’m often asked ‘what’s it like being a man with anorexia?’ and I always reply ‘I’ve never been a woman with anorexia so I wouldn’t know the difference’”.