Teen girls aspiring to look like their favorite celebrity or women starving themselves for weeks trying to fit into their favorite dress are the stereotypical images people think of when they hear about eating disorders. But an eating disorder is a disease that does not discriminate, and a growing number of men are now afflicted with this illness. The National Eating Disorder Association reports that one million men suffer from an eating disorder, but only 10 percent of those men seek treatment.
As the eating disorder coordinator at The Menninger Clinic, one of the nation’s leading psychiatric hospitals, I realize that societal, family, and peer pressures are factors that can lead to unhealthy eating habits for men. Men, in turn, want to strive to appear more muscular, athletic, and attractive. Where Barbie and similar dolls have long been considered negative role models for young girls, there is now increased debate about the negative impact of male action figures on young boys. Some researchers believe most male action figures, like G.I. Joe, promote a hyper-muscular physique that is associated with supreme masculinity. Additionally, some men’s sports, such as gymnastics and diving, expect a particular body type.
Research shows that these feelings have led many young men to begin using external agents like steroids and over-the-counter supplements to fix an internal problem — body dissatisfaction. These men are also over-exercising and engaging in other maladaptive behaviors to manage their weight, including restricting, binge eating, and purging.
Just like there’s a stigma associated with women dealing with eating disorders, a stigma — perhaps worse — exists for men. Many men find it particularly difficult to seek help because they feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, or ashamed about identifying themselves as having an eating disorder. In a society where men are always expected to be strong, they may feel weak for admitting that they have the disease, which may preclude them from seeking help.
The medical and psychiatric community also plays a role in this. Nationwide there are very few programs that specialize in helping males address unhealthy eating behaviors or body dissatisfaction. Although the majority of the patients admitted to The Menninger Clinic with eating disorders are female, we have even seen an increase in males in our program.
In order for more males to feel comfortable with seeking treatment, they have to have greater access to programs that are prepared and willing to treat men with eating disorders while recognizing that the way the disease affects them may be different from how it affects women.
It is important that physicians, psychiatrists, and the society as a whole recognizes that, like cancer or other ailments, men and women alike are at risk for eating disorders. We must continue to improve our understanding of factors that impact the development and maintenance of eating disorders and body dissatisfaction for males while also increasing support and treatment options for these often silent victims.