As with many things in life, eating disorders come with a stereotype. Young women inspired by the unrealistic images of female celebrities, desperate to become like their idols or to fit in with their peers. It is only in recent times that eating disorders have begun to become recognised diseases effecting both male and female, the old and the young, from any walk of life. It has been reported that 1 in 10 eating disorder sufferers are male but that accounts only for those that have actively sought help. Many still suffer in silence either in denial or afraid to seek help in fear of the judgement they might receive.
Craig Edwards is a mental health nurse and ambassador for the charity MGEDT (Men Get Eating Disorders Too). He has suffered from Bulimia for 15 years starting at the age of 11. Like many other eating disorder sufferers, the illness brought along depression which eventually led to an attempt on ending his own life. Craig believes people are still surprised that men also experience eating disorders and that a wider acknowledgement is needed. ‘Eating disorders in women have had massive media exposure for decades and just a small percentage of the media during this time has been devoted to male eating disorders, so I guess it’s just brushed under the carpet and often forgotten.’
Many women in the public eye have spoken out about their struggles with eating disorders but there are few male celebrities which can be named. Demi Lovato, Lindsay Lohan and Lady Gaga have all shared their stories and encouraged others to seek help. ‘Lots of well known women have spoken out over the years but very little men do so. Eating disorders can be a very secretive disorder, so perhaps this adds to the silence in the media’ Craig says.
A recent report by the Royal College of General Practitioners stated that there has been a 66% rise of male hospital admissions for eating disorders, but one of the issues with diagnosing men is that often they are not aware themselves of the symptoms. Skipping meals, binging and purging amongst other controlling methods can often be unrecognised by the sufferer themselves.
There are a number of charities working towards highlighting male eating disorders including Men Get Eating Disorders Too (MGEDT) and Beat, who have launched a campaign to encourage men to receive treatment. The #beatthesilence campaign is aimed at giving confidence to men to speak out about their issues and allow others to realise they are not alone.
Dave Chawner suffers from anorexia and is an ambassador for Beat as well as a stand-up comic, using his comedy to remove the stigma surrounding eating disorders and mental health. He believes the social perception of men as the dominant sex adds to the increased pressure for men to speak up. ‘I think men are rubbish at mental health, I don’t know why that is, maybe it’s this thing of bravado or the alpha male that should be the one that is protecting rather than protected.’
To many, an eating disorder is a way of coping with other issues and is seen as a good companion to enable them to feel a sense of control. Dave uses the word ‘winning’ when describing feeling in charge of his anorexia. The sense that you are succeeding at something, with every pound lost, with every comment about your weight, acts as motivation to carry on and to continue to ‘win.’ One skipped meal soon turns into one meal a day, a spontaneous purge soon turns into planned binges and purges.
‘Anorexia for me was a weird competitive game and when I was winning at it, it was the best, most beautiful, holistic, incredible thing. It gave me an identity and something to work for.’ But inevitably it is the eating disorder which takes control and becomes the winner. ‘I became numb to everything, I wouldn’t feel anything and it felt like the future was crashing against my door and I couldn’t hold it. It felt like I was doing nothing with my life, I couldn’t get out of bed and I wasn’t working. I was constantly distracted, angry and anxious.’
Eating disorders can creep up on sufferers without them being consciously aware for some time. Statistics show 1 in 4 adults feel guilty after eating and 1 in 4 also would be happier if they were thinner. It has also been reported that 1 in 10 men regularly skip meals in an attempt to control their weight.
Craig Lomas is a designer and Fashion Editor for Vada magazine and has suffered from both Bulimia and Anorexia. ‘It’s a mental disorder and much like an addict is addicted to the buzz from drugs, losing weight for some sufferers offers the same sense of delirium’ he explains. Similar to addicts, eating disorders can bring with them a sense of denial, with sufferers unwilling to accept they have a problem. This for men can be even more challenging.
‘I think it’s because men in society are seen as the dominant, strong providers and it’s only women who are allowed to show a need for help. We’ve all heard how men can have their prides dented and I honestly believe that there’s a sense of shame in admitting to a problem that is often seen as a woman’s illness.’ Craig echoes the opinions of the other interviewees. ‘More facts need to be published on men affected and we need to stop pigeon holing this disease to teenage girls, trying to emulate stick thin models on the cat walk.’
For many men it is often difficult to open up and admit a sense of vulnerability. Talking about feelings generally comes natural to females but for men, speaking out is often coupled with the risk of losing masculinity; it can be hard to disclose any sense of weakness. Male eating disorders need to become accepted as a social norm, as female eating disorders are and the gender division needs to be excluded. Diagnosis methods and treatment plans need to be non-gender specific. The more we speak and the greater publicity for eating disorders, the less taboo the subject becomes and people will not be afraid to seek the help they need.
23 February to 1 March is Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2015. Beat are running a ‘Sock it to Eating Disorders’ fundraising event asking the public to don silly socks and donate £1. To get involved click here!