Facing the Stigma: Living with an Eating Disorder as a Man

I am honored to introduce Steve Sanders for our next guest post. Steve is a recovering alcoholic , writer, and blogger at Haven House Addiction Treatment. He lives in Los Angeles, California and enjoys spending time with his family and on his motorcycle when not writing. He can be reached at oneroadtorecovery@gmail.com

The typical image of a person with an eating disorder is a woman, or more specifically a white teenage girl from a well-off family. Almost all the popular information available about eating disorders is aimed at women and is about women.

But studies suggest that about 10 million men and boys in the U.S. will have an eating order at some point in their lives. In fact, while anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are more common in women, men are at greater risk of developing a binge eating disorder (overeating without purging or otherwise compensating for the excessive food intake).

Eating disorders can be health-threatening, even deadly. Anorectics can starve themselves to death. Bulimics can damage their teeth or induce electrolyte imbalances and esophageal ulcers. Binge eaters can develop Type II diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, gall bladder problems, digestive problems, and osteoarthritis. Eating disorders are often accompanied by substance abuse (for example, appetite suppressants and steroids) and emotional problems such as anxiety, depression, shame, social isolation, and anger. Men with eating disorders are more likely to commit suicide.

Why aren’t more of us guys getting treatment?

Social Conditioning

Expectations in our culture tend to encourage eating disorders. Eating disorders often develop during adolescence, when we’re most vulnerable to outside pressure. Society tells us we should be leaner–fat guys are a joke. Or we should be more muscular. We’re given comic book superheroes as the biologically impossible ideal.

When we’re young, competitive sports can be a huge part of our lives. Some sports, such as wrestling, track, gymnastics, swimming, or body building, demand a certain body type and weight. The desire to excel and win approval can drive us to over-exercising and an obsession with food. Coaches may encourage and reward us for doing the extra workouts even when we don’t need them and for sticking fanatically to a diet.

Some forms of eating disorders are socially acceptable–for example, eating contests, which are really just binge eating. The winner is the macho guy who can down more hot dogs or pie than anyone else, regardless of the resulting pain.

Emotional Obstacles

Most eating disorders are rooted in control issues. We’re guys–we aren’t supposed to admit we have problems we can’t handle. We turn to food to numb our worries over our social insecurities, success or lack of it, gender identity, or sexuality. But the sense of control is an illusion. In reality, the eating disorder is controlling us.

Even if we recognize that our eating habits are making us sick, we may hesitate to seek help. We’re afraid someone will find out what we’re doing and demand that we stop–that we back off on the exercise, eat a realistic diet, give up the pills or alcohol–and that’s too scary to face.

Lack of Awareness

We don’t tend to look for eating disorders in men. We don’t see ourselves as having a problem and too often neither does anyone else. We don’t identify with the anorexic teenaged girl or her bulimic big sister. We may not recognize our weekend pizza binges with the boys as abnormal. Our doctors treat our symptoms and don’t ask about the irrational eating habits that are causing our heart disease or diabetes.

Social Obstacles

Even if we’re able to get a diagnosis, most resources and treatment are aimed at women and girls. We’re not comfortable reading a book or article or going on a website where all the pictures and stories are about women. While support groups can be helpful, we are often reluctant to admit we need support.

Let’s face it, women have their own way of communicating and relating. If we’re on A.M. and everyone else in the support group seems to be on F.M., we probably won’t go back. Some residential treatment centers don’t even accept male patients. Women doctors and counselors can be knowledgeable and experienced, but they may miss things that are interfering with our treatment simply because they aren’t familiar with male culture.

Gay men are three times more likely to have an eating disorder than straight men, leading to the misunderstanding that eating disorders in men are a gay thing. Because gay men are a small fraction of the entire male population, the great majority of men with eating disorders are straight. Still, we may resist admitting that we have an eating disorder because “I’m not gay!”

Looking Ahead

Eating disorders can be treated successfully, especially when they’re caught early. The medical community is coming to understand that eating disorders are not just a women’s issue, but that they affect all genders, races, ages, incomes, and levels of society.

Admitting that you’re in trouble and need help getting out is tough. But you can do it, and help is waiting.

1 reply
  1. Dean
    Dean says:

    Glad to know you are healing from the alcoholism. I am hoping this was an introduction only. This data has been stated too many times and yet no path to healing shown for men.

    Hope to see more for us binge and purge people [I run to purge].

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