For the past five years I've been campaigning and raising awareness of men with eating disorders with an aim to debunk the myth that eating disorders is a 'female problem.' Significant advances in awareness have been made in this short space of time to highlight the inequalities male sufferers face, but there's still a long way to go...
According to a recent study the gender assumptions made about eating disorders is stopping young men from receiving the help and support they need. In an article published by the British Medical Journal young men who suffer from eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia are 'underdiagnosed, undertreated and underresearched.' The idea that eating disorders only affect young women was cited as one of the main reasons that men continue to be isolated and marginalised group.
Researchers explain that young men did not know that: obsessively counting calories, exercising and weighing themselves excessively, or purging themselves were behaviours symptomatic of eating disorders. Findings shown that male sufferers carry out their eating disorders behaviours oblivious to the illness, let alone the impact it has on their physical and mental health. One young man, who described himself as 'one of the lads,' said he thought eating disorders only affected 'fragile teenage girls.' Even friends, family and teachers were slow to recognise that the men were suffering from eating disorders - instead viewing shifts in their behaviour as personal choices. It was only when the young men reached a crisis point or were admitted to A&E that they diagnosed.
Despite getting a diagnosis, the situation for many did not immediately improve. Participants reported long waiting times for specialist referral, and were sometimes misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. For instance, one young man was told 'to man up' by a doctor. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case with many sufferers echoing similar experiences of their symptoms being simply brushed off.
A colleague of mine, Russell Delderfield, brilliantly argued the need for change in attitudes to the gender bias in The Conversation: "What are we doing to change the fact that we still have a society that has raised men to believe that there can even be such a thing as a feminine mental health condition? Slightly scarier still, why is having a "women's illness" such a bad thing?"
"It's important that more people learn that eating disorders are a men's, as well as a women's, issue, not least because prognosis is improved with early detection," he added.
As the Founder and Director of Men Get Eating Disorders Too, it's this very issue that led me to set up the charity in the first place. Having suffered bulimia myself for eight years I received no support whatsoever, despite the severity of my illness. I spoke to the doctor about my bulimia at eighteen when I was bingeing and purging up to eight times a day. She seemed to ignore the bulimia and focus on the depression and anxiety. Looking back, I question whether I was a woman with the same set of situations and behaviours would I have been treated for bulimia? The likelihood is the doctor was probably had no idea that men get eating disorders.
It's that one occasion with the doctor that led me to investigate men and eating disorders. I remember six years ago browsing the internet to find any websites specifically for men. There was nothing other than a few lonely blogs from sufferers in the states. The generic website for eating disorders including the charitable ones were all pink and girly making me feel most unwelcome. Moreover, the literature on these sites referred the sufferer as 'she' with token mentions of men being sufferers as if it were unusual.
Now in 2014 has the attitudes towards eating disorders and gender changed? I want to say yes but thinking about it the focus continues to be stereotyped and problematic.
Eating disorders are still largely assumed to be a female concern. Services available, whether statutory or charitable, are largely geared to women only. Frustratingly, the latest campaign by Beat in partnership with Cosmopolitan re-affirms that eating disorders a one-gender issue.
The campaign message: " No doctor would tell a cancer patient to go away until their illness got worse. But that's what's happening to thousands of women with eating disorders." I beg the question - what about men? Surely they are able being turned away in the thousands, too?
We need to accept that eating disorders indiscriminate irrespective of gender, age, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation or social background. After-all, anyone can be affected and theirs no particular demographic for those who fall to the prey of eating disorders.
Stereotypes regarding eating disorders are just that and men are urged to speak up to shatter the stigma...
For information on eating and exercise disorders go to: www.mengetedstoo.co.uk