It’s no secret that eating disorders affect a large proportion of women compared to men, however the divide isn’t as big as you’d think: of at least 725,000 people with an eating disorder in the UK, roughly a quarter are believed to be male.
Yet eating disorders are often presented as ‘women’s illnesses’. Sadly, these narrow representations can be harmful to men who don’t recognise their own problems as an eating disorder and put off seeking help until it’s too late.
With new NHS Digital data revealing the number of men admitted to hospital with eating disorders has risen by 70% in the past six years, it’s even more important to kickstart conversations surrounding male mental health and prioritise tackling gender stereotypes.
Do eating disorders affect men and women differently?
Based on media representation, it could be quite easy to think men and women experience different eating disorders from each other, but that’s not true.
A spokesperson for eating disorders charity Beat told HuffPost UK: “While people with eating disorders can be diagnosed with various illnesses, including anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder) - and can have a wide range of psychological, behavioural and physical symptoms - these aren’t likely to differ hugely on account of gender.”
How do stereotypes affect a patient’s access to treatment?
Beat believes persistent stereotypes surrounding eating disorders mean male sufferers and their friends or family may not recognise their symptoms as those of an eating disorder, which can be dangerous.
Sam Thomas, founder of Men Get Eating Disorders Too, experienced this firsthand. He had bulimia between the ages of 13-21 with almost “no idea” what the problem was.
“I recognised my symptoms while reading an agony aunt column and plucked up the courage to go to the doctor,” he previously told HuffPost UK.
“At first we only spoke about my depression and anxiety, there was no mention of my eating disorder. I wonder whether I would have been diagnosed sooner if I was female.”
Thomas visited the GP multiple times before he was diagnosed, which he believes was fuelled further by his doctor’s lack of training surrounding eating disorders.
A Beat spokesperson said the latest rise in male hospital admissions could indicate “increasing recognition of eating disorders in men” - a potentially positive sign.
But they added the ultimate aim is to help people access treatment before the point where hospitalisation is necessary, as it increases their chance of recovery.
What’s fuelling the rise in eating disorders among men?
Most experts agree that our increasingly image-obsessed culture is bucking the trend.
Dr William Rhys Jones, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ eating disorders faculty, told the Guardian: “Pressure for body perfection is on the rise for men of all ages, which is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder. Images of unhealthy male body ideals in the media place unnecessary pressure on vulnerable people who strive for acceptance through the way they look.”
It can’t just be a coincidence that the number of men taking steroids has quadrupled in the past year. The NHS suggests teenage boys and young men may take the drugs because they have bigorexia (or reverse anorexia), where they don’t see themselves as being physically big enough or strong enough.
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, has called for schools, universities and employers to be more aware of the danger signs of eating disorders, which can include “excessive dieting or daily trips to the gym, eating large amounts of food, the inappropriate use of laxatives and obsessions around weight and appearance”.
How is best to talk to a loved one if you suspect they might have an eating disorder?
“It’s important to remember that not all eating disorders are created equal. They can be the manifestation or coping strategy for all kinds of struggles,” a spokesperson for The Self-Esteem Team, which provides mental health and self-esteem education for teens, told HuffPost UK.
“Marking yourself out as someone who will listen without judgement and respect a person’s choices once they do share with you is a great place to start.
“In the meantime, using your time together to remind them of the qualities they possess, keeping the focus away from aesthetics and ensuring they have autonomy in decision-making is more useful than many of us could ever imagine.”
Beat said awareness is also key. “It’s vital that everyone is aware that eating disorders can affect anyone, and gender is not a factor,” a spokesperson added.
“The best first step if you’re worried about yourself or anyone that you think might have an eating disorder is to encourage them to speak to their doctor as soon as they can, and to assure them that they are not alone with their illness.”