Suffering in silence: Men with Eds
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By Austin Andre
It was recently Eating Disorders (EDs) Awareness Week, a time dedicated to spreading the word about those who struggle with irregular eating patterns. ED awareness week had me reflecting on my own struggles with various EDs, my path of recovery, and how I even wound up with this issue in the first place. For a while now, I’ve wanted to shed light on a topic that has been relatively silent on media platforms, and I decided this was the best time to do it.
While this piece may not change the world, if it makes one person aware of the issues I am about to explain, it’s well worth it. Before I begin, I want to state that this column is not to undermine women’s struggles with EDs nor to make the struggles of others less critical.
Silence. The biggest enemy of those struggling with disorders, addictions, abuse, and other situations. Millions of dollars are spent each year on ads and PSA campaigns urging those struggling with the above issues to speak up and seek help. While these types of outreaches have certainly worked in recent decades, there is a silent minority of individuals who are consistently being overlooked. This minority is young men between the ages of 15-30 who struggle with various EDs. These disorders are a form of mental illness that exacts a physical toll on the bodies of those stricken with it. What’s even more dangerous is people with EDs can look and act completely normal, only falling into the tropes of their disorder in secret.
For decades, the primary sufferers of EDs were young women in the same age range. They are the majority of the statistical makeup in past and present studies. There are reasons why young women are more prone to EDs, such as being held to unrealistic beauty standards, social media influencers, peer pressure, and others. There has been a big push recently in the media to reject these unrealistic beauty standards, creating more realistic expectations for women and creating a positive body environment on social media platforms.
These actions have certainly helped, and while they have not eradicated the issues of EDs for young women, they have improved the situation significantly. Women are more enticed and encouraged to speak up about their problems with EDs, welcomed by support groups, and find no shortage of loving peers in these like-minded therapy congregations. Yet, when we examine the trends of eating disorders and who is affected by them, there’s been a notable upward trend for men. And while there is more spotlight on this trend, it’s nowhere near where it needs to be. A 2019 National Library of Medicine (NLOM) study described EDs as the “most gendered psychiatric illnesses.” The study also explains that it took nearly a century after anorexia nervosa (AN) was first described that the notions of male ED representation were first introduced into the medical literature. Most medical studies chose not to recognize disorders such as AN if they appeared in males because there was no endocrine equivalent such as amenorrhea.
The study goes on to state that recent evidence displays one in four men as sufferers of EDs. Thus the belief that EDs are uncommon in males can no longer be held. Yet, even with this understanding, EDs have been observed as mainly a female problem for decades, and most treatments and therapies for these disorders are operated as such. At the time, the study stated less than 1 perecent of peer-reviewed studies on EDs specifically addressed males. I’ve discussed why this underrepresentation is significant, citing gendered studies and medical misunderstandings. However, there are more reasons men go so undiagnosed, some of which may surprise you.
We live in a society that prides itself on the removal of gender stereotypes, the abolishment of “toxic masculinity,” and the inclusion of free spaces for all to voice their struggles. Yet, the opposite occurs when men try to speak about their trauma with EDs, domestic abuse, or even mental distress. Despite society’s efforts to make people feel included, men are often dismissed. Either by other men or the very organizations meant to help them. Our pull yourself up by the bootstraps mentality doesn’t always work for men and is even dangerous in some cases. These dismissals lead those afflicted with EDs to remain silent and only further the underdiagnoses pandemic. Men need to encourage other men to seek help. Men must abandon this old-school approach to mental disorders and understand nothing is unmasculine about seeking help.
EDs can also creep into men’s lives as harmless “healthy habits.” The biggest of these is Orthorexia. Orthorexia is described as an obsessive focus on clean eating. I suffered from this myself for over a year and a half directly. For me, it began with wanting to lose weight, improve my body composition, and become healthier. Those are all terrific goals for a young man. However, I wound up starving myself due to widespread misinformation and lack of knowledge. I went from 188 lbs to 130 lbs in a little over a year. I wound up looking sick and gaunt. So weak I could barely walk some days. Eating as little as 800 calories a day, sneaking food from family meals, being deathly afraid of going out to eat with my family, and making life worse for everyone around me. This only fueled my eventual sporadic binge eating disorder. These are all everyday things for people with Orthorexia.
I began slowly reworking my relationship with food, which has taken me over three years and counting. I started weight lifting, eating more, and using sound scientific knowledge. Yet, the mindsets of extreme weight loss, deprivation, and restriction followed me. Constant YO-YO dieting, wheel spinning, and binging are what I found even after taking the first steps to recovery.
A more niche yet prevalent ED is “bigorexia.” This is when someone is obsessed with getting as big and muscular as possible. This primarily affects boys who’ve been skinny their whole lives and use bigorexia to escape the feelings of inadequacy they’ve dealt with. Similar to how Orthorexia and anorexia are familiar with men who’ve been overweight most of their lives. This stems from a fear of becoming like your past self, but it only creates a worse, much unhealthier future self. Bigorexia symptoms include overeating, severe body dysmorphia, and even steroid use. Social media plays a massive role in these disorders, especially in the fitness industry. Every day young men are shown unrealistic bodies, shredded to the bone with tons of muscle only achievable by steroids. Women have pushed to abandon unnatural body types over the years, and I firmly believe men must do the same.
So with this all said, what can you do to help this issue? Or if you suffer from it, how can you seek help? Speaking up is the most significant thing to do if one suffers from an ED. Tell your loved ones, contact a therapist, or find a support group. There are several online groups, such as the Eating Disorder Foundation (EDF). The EDF hosts monthly zoom meetings for specific gender and age demographics to get help and speak with like-minded individuals. These meetings are free and very helpful. If you know someone exhibiting symptoms of an ED, approach them with kindness, understanding, and patience. Getting someone to open up about an ED is challenging and requires careful action. Helpguide.org lays out three steps to help you when talking to someone about an ED. These steps are to pick a good time, explain why you’re concerned, prepare for denial and pushback, ask why the person wants to change, and be attentive and supportive. The exact details of these steps are also laid out on their website.
EDs are a global pandemic. From the farthest corners of the earth to our own bedrooms and living spaces. The most significant place a person can have an impact for themselves and others with EDs is in their homes and communities. The smallest gesture or step can be the difference between suffering and recovering. So please, speak up, reach out, and be safe. I’m always willing to talk and share my story with EDs to anyone suffering from it and looking for a connection. I can be reached at email@example.com.