Meet X. X was like many young people: happy, popular and dynamic, until an operation meant X could no longer enjoy sports. Suddenly X felt out of control. X began to limit food intake and became addicted to the feeling of hunger.
X developed an eating disorder.
But what if I told you X’s real name is Jonathan?
Over the past decade, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of men diagnosed with eating disorders. Out of around 1.6 million cases currently diagnosed in the UK, a significant 11 per cent were male.
So why do we continue to perceive illnesses such as bulimia and anorexia as solely afflicting teenage girls? And as eating disorders claim more lives than any other mental illness, are we taking the issue seriously enough?
Men and Eating Disorders
The reasons behind eating disorders, for both men and women, are extremely complex and often hard to identify. There is also the issue of determining when eating habits become a serious problem. Men, by their nature, are usually more reluctant to seek medical assistance, so the number of males actually affected by eating disorders will be much higher than statistics show.
Allthough eating disorders can affect anyone at any age, men are most at risk between the ages of 14 and 25.
Jonathan was 17 when he started to obsess over his eating.
“I suffered an injury playing rugby,” he says. “Being forced to stop the sport inevitably caused me to drift away from the social side of my hobby. At the same time my self-confidence gradually began to disappear. Over the next year or so I began to take pleasure from the hunger sensation. The more I denied my body the food it needed, the deeper my hunger became, and the greater the sense of control I felt being restored.”
The influence of sports is actually a very common factor in triggering male eating disorders. Men who participate in sports that require a certain body ‘type’ may feel pressured to achieve or maintain this look, for example runners or jockeys.
However, eating disorders are not solely about being thin. In fact, the converse is becoming increasingly common in men. Whereas anorexics think they are too fat, those with muscle dysmorphia, or ‘bigorexia’, believe they are not muscular enough, despite the fact they are often extremely built. Could our culture of male underwear models and ripped actors be responsible for this increase of body obsession in men?
Recent studies have found that gay and bisexual males are at a far higher risk of developing eating disorders than their heterosexual counterparts. Some researchers argue that this is because the gay community puts as much emphasis on appearance as heterosexual females, creating pressure to obtain the physical ideal.
Brian, a 23-year-old student, believes his sexuality played a major role in his illness.
“I developed an eating disorder at the age of 14,” he says. “It was at that age I realized I was gay, and the fear and anxiety of not being accepted plagued me. My eating disorder was a coping mechanism and gave me ultimate control. Even after I came out to my parents, peers and others around me, I was too deep in my eating disorder to develop healthy ways of dealing with my emotions.”
Why the Stigma?
So with the number of males suffering from eating disorders on the rise, are we starting to take the problem more seriously? Unfortunately, most sufferers and health organisations would say no.
“If doctors see a young man who is thin, they are more likely to think he is depressed,” explains a spokesperson from the Royal College of General Practitioners.
Brian agrees that more needs to be done.
“When my parents were searching for inpatient facilities to admit me to, there were barely any that accepted men,” he says. “This just goes to show that support for men with eating disorders is scarce, which is really tragic.”
Help is on the Horizon
Thankfully, there are several charities campaigning to raise awareness of eating disorders, affecting both men and women, such as Beat. Beat supports those with an eating disorder as well as their family and friends, providing information through Helplines, groups and online support, while campaigning for better services and access to treatment.
Both Jonathan and Brian have happy endings to their stories. Jonathan overcame his problem by finding something that meant more to him than his illness.
“On Boxing Day 2006 I knew that vomiting would stop me from seeing the DJs I so wanted to see that evening so I chose not to do it,” he explains. “I battled through the day, fighting to suppress that incredibly powerful urge and I had a great time that night. I haven’t made myself sick since. I know now that it was this that gave me my life back.”
Brian adds: “It took quite a while for me to develop healthy coping skills and come to terms with things. I was able to turn my life around thanks to the unconditional love I learned to give myself.”
What do you think of eating disorders and their affect? Have your say in the comments section below.
IMAGE: Flickr/Adrian Clark