Gavan Reilly investigates the rising number of males reporting eating disorders and finds an endemic problem that appears only to be getting worse
Most of us, when asked to close our eyes and imagine a UCD student with an eating disorder, would probably conjure up a similar image. We would probably envisage a thin young woman, wearing an oversized hoodie to cover her undernourished frame, standing outside the James Joyce Library, perhaps having a cigarette for lunch in an attempt to kick her appetite.
Far fewer of us would imagine the same scenario being played out by a young man, conscious of his weight and hoping that a hit of nicotine will be enough to get him through lunch. Fewer again would picture a muscular young man in Crunch Fitness, grunting in pain as the muscles in his arm tear from one too many bench-presses, or whose legs are buckling after a mile too far on the treadmill.
Yet this is the reality of eating disorders today – and countless male students are being affected by body image problems in more worryingly everyday ways.
Last week was National Eating Disorder Awareness week – a week dedicated to raising the public profile of the scourge of eating disorders among the general public. While public perception of such problems has been traditionally focussed on the problems experienced by young women, this year’s campaign took a less predictable focus: highlighting the rising prevalence of eating disorders among men of all ages, as embodied in behaviour that many of us might not perceive as anything other than totally ordinary.
“One of our biggest awareness campaigns last year was on challenging the stereotypes about eating disorders, because you do get this perception that it happens to 14-year-old girls and that’s it,” says Ruth Ní Eidhin of Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland. “One of the big things we talked about was that, ‘no, this happens to people of any age, and it definitely does happen for men.’ We’re seeing an increase these days in the number of men who are being affected.”
Whether the current rise in the number of male patients being diagnosed with eating disorders can be attributed to a genuine increase in the number exhibiting negative body image problems, or simply because more men are now taking the first step to recovery by acknowledging that they may have a problem is unclear. Either way, Ní Eidhin believes that the burgeoning societal obsession with male health has nurtured this culture, and suggests that men of all ages – but particularly young adults – are struggling to accept this new regime. This has been given all the more prominence with the recent news that Men’s Health magazine has overtaken the less health-oriented FHM as the biggest-selling men’s magazine on these islands.
“There’s a lot more pressure on men in terms of physical appearance in the last five or ten years,” Ní Eidhin believes. “Women have been raised in a world where we’re expected to be judged on our appearance, and we’re expected to be told how we’re supposed to look or dress, or whatever, whereas for men that wasn’t as prevalent for a long time.
“Now, if you look at these Men’s Health magazines, there’s always a similar image on the cover of a guy that has this incredibly toned upper body. And that’s something that we are hearing a lot about… there is that consciousness of, ‘men are supposed to look a certain way’, and I’m not sure that existed about ten years ago.”
This emergent culture is a logical and natural progression from the stereotypical roles of each gender in modern society, where men are portrayed as the more physically capable species, expected to take care of the heavy lifting, while women are still idealised as being less physically capable, but countering this by being, in a glamorised Hollywood world at least, ‘prettier’ and more delicate.
It’s precisely this fixation with satisfying the athletic stereotype that leads so many men, Ní Eidhin reports, to their own unique form of coping: over-exercise. “It’s important to say that in the case of something like anorexia, with men it tends to be experienced a bit more differently, so rather than restricting your diet, you’re over-exercising, which is taking exercise to a compulsive level.
“If you think about the number of guys in their 20s who have to go to the gym every day… it’s at that point where they can’t miss their gym session, or they can’t miss that time in the weights room because they feel there’s a certain amount of muscle they need.”
This health-obsessed culture, of course, is not the only embodiment of male eating disorders: there is also the more high-profile stereotypical behaviour of purging food, and simply refusing to eat when their body demand nourishment. As detailed in the last Observer, pro-anorexia (or ‘pro-Ana’) websites are shockingly plentiful – but while many follow the stereotype and cater largely to females alone, the number of sites catering specifically for men trying to betray their bodies’ needs is also on the rise.
One such site – a networking site where users can leave photos of themselves for others as ‘thinspiration’ – offers some “helpful tips and tricks” for its members. “Browsing through model agency’s websites, and finding adequit [sic] thinspiration pictures,” it recommends, “can distract you from eating and feels satisfying… Wear a red/purple bracelet on the arm you always eat with. Everytime you want to grab something, the bracelet will remember you.” The most striking thing about such sites is that, though they foster a community spirit where struggling users can feel inspired by their fellow members, the aim is far from healthy: users assist each other in resisting the urge to eat, and encourage – in spite of acknowledging their medical diagnoses and the best intentions of their parents and friends – continued weight loss to the point of emaciation.
But worse than the continued support (photos of thinner men are rewarded with comments like “nice ribs”) offered is the resource of perverse motivational material, ranging from inspirational movies and songs to emotive texts such as ‘the Ana Creed’ (sample sentence: “I believe in bathroom scales as an indicator of my daily successes and failures”) and quotes promoting the values of self-control – a virtue that indulgent eating disorder victims consider to be idyllic, and one they perceive themselves as being ambassadors in spreading.
Ní Eidhin is frank in admitting that the unique problems of male bodily image disorders – and the perception that such problems are female-only and that it’s considered somewhat effeminate to come forward with such problems – mean that tackling the problem is a regrettably difficult task, especially when it seems that more and more men are falling victim to such disorders: it is estimated that ten per cent of anorexia and bulimia victims are male, though this suggestion is constantly being revised upward. This is especially worrying given the Department of Health’s recent revelation that some 200,000 people in Ireland – one in twenty people – harbour some kind of negative body image problem, and the fact that there are only three public beds in the entire country allocated to treating patients with eating disorders.
Thankfully, Ní Eidhin says that the admission of high-profile figures, such as rugby pundit George Hook and former British deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, as being victims of eating disorders have encouraged others of their gender and age to seek help for their disorders.
“It has to be said, the [media] reaction to [Prescott’s public announcement] was appalling. But, at the same time, our equivalent organisation in the UK – the number of calls they got from men in their fifties, sixties and seventies in the weeks that followed that was amazing. So there is that impact where if you see a man say, ‘Wait, this does happen to men and it’s not just young men, it’s men of any age’, it has such a huge impact.”
Unfortunately for the moment – especially given the particular keep-fit culture pervasive among young men of college-going age – there are no similarly high-profile role models for male UCD students who might suffer from a body image disorder to look up to. This is something Ní Eidhin reports that Bodywhys are trying to address, explaining a new ‘Be Body Positive’ initiative where the organisation are hoping to recruit young people who themselves are coping with eating disorders to present a positive message to their peers.
“If [young men] see someone from their own sport, from their own club, from their own team saying, ‘Wait a minute guys, this is what’s really going on behind this – mental health issues are a reality for men in this country. Let’s talk about this,’ I think it really does make a difference. You have those role models that are willing to talk about it, and not saying, ‘This is a really big step for me to talk about this.’” Ireland needs to develop a culture where it’s not considered ‘brave’, she adds, for someone to admit an eating disorder. “It has to just be ‘what you do’. It’s not brave to talk about having a broken arm.”
Sadly, though, it would appear that there are legions more young men suffering in silence. “From the men we would talk to on the helpline, there’s always that sense of, ‘I’ve suffered for so long, I’ve been completely isolated from this, and I don’t want people to know this is going on for me because it’ll be seen a sign of weakness,’” Ní Eidhin concludes. “There’s layer upon layer of barriers to people getting support, which is a real pity.”
Bodywhys offer support and guidance services to those with eating disorders, as well as their families and friends. www.bodywhys.ie
The UCD Student Health Service can assist students who believe they may have a mental health problem. Call (01) 716 3133.