Of every mental illness, eating disorders carry the highest mortality rate, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. What many fail to consider is that this dangerous affliction is not gender biased.
Because men account for only 15 percent of eating disorder sufferers, the factors that drive their behavior are often overlooked. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder are all most commonly viewed as “women’s disorders,” resulting in a gendered stigmatization.
As with most psychological disorders, discussing, or especially reaching out for help, is still unfortunately considered taboo in many cases. Gender roles and the conflict involved with masculinity in eating disorders leave most men reeling in silence.
This is not to undermine the prevalence, challenges or the severity of eating disorders within women but more so to address the ramifications for both genders.
The onset of any variation of an eating disorder, like all mental illnesses, is a hugely obscure combination of internal and external factors. The National Eating Disorders Association indicated that nearly 50 percent of eating disorder victims meet the criteria for depression. Other common personal traits include perfectionism, neuroticism and other addictive tendencies – all non-gender specific.
Outside factors are what mildly separates the experience for men and women. Generally with women, body dysmorphia manifests in the singular goal for thinness and control. In men, it varies between thinness or muscularity.
There are two types of unattainable bodies being thrown at boys today. NEDA indicated the overtly muscular build of a man’s body has increased greatly since the ’70s in media culture, throwing some into an over-exercising, under-feeding crash routine. The other is a more recent trend, influenced by the bone-thin boys of the fashion world. Specifically, the male model lineup for Saint Laurent in recent seasons has sparked discussion about “Manarexia” and body expectations for men.
Of the 10 million males who will at some point suffer from an eating disorder, 42 percent identify as homosexual and are most commonly diagnosed with an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. EDNOS sufferers typically aren’t at a dangerous body weight but carry elements of every disordered eating behavior.
Sexuality is a major aspect in understanding eating disorders. Particularly with gay men, thinness is often considered the ideal. Pulling from a personal narrative, I’ve heard of scenarios that included the consumption of orange juice-dipped cotton balls for sustenance. This anecdote came from a gay man slimming down to be attractive for potential suitors.
The same effect can transpire in women, as some media and societal pressures will associate beauty and self-worth with thinness. But often, it is driven in an opposite direction where victims of sexual assault will cope with their trauma through an eating disorder, as it provides a sense of control.
Due to the highly polarized nature of these specific instances, most rehab centers don’t allow coed environments to exist. Understandably, yet norm-defying, men seeking help have even further obstacles to overcome.
What’s most important to remember is that no sufferer is more or less important based on gender, class or previous life experiences. All discussion surrounding mental illness is progress, so long as it’s done in a kosher manner. When doing so, being all-inclusive is imperative.