Only a decade or so ago, experts believed that eating disorders were largely a girls' disease. 95% of sufferers of anorexia and bulimia are female, said the common line. But now, some experts are warning that we've been overlooking a massive, heartbreaking problem: as many as 20 to 30% of people suffering from eating disorders are men. And they've been ignored.
A heartbreaking piece on male eating disorders in this month's GQ highlights a problem that, even now, is one of unknown scale and one with unknown treatment options. The problem, it seems, is that not enough people take seriously the fact that boys can have a problem with food, eating, and their bodies. Doctors facing blaring, obvious symptoms of the disease, will ignore them because dudes can't be anorexic. Families of men with bulimia will ignore things that, in girls, would be seen as red flags. Boys and men who find themselves battling EDs are often on their own to diagnose themselves, and then seek treatment. There's a problem with that, too — more than half of the eating disorder treatment centers in the US won't accept men, who are often already on the fringe.
A male anorexic tends to conform to a particular personality type: "anxious, obsessive, persevering, and perfectionistic," according to Arnold Andersen of the University of Iowa. He is desperate to please and hypersensitive to rejection and humiliation. The illness typically takes root during adolescence, and it is almost never the first, or only, way he tries to deal with social, sexual, or academic anxiety: He may also use drugs, or cut himself, or have OCD. A young man faces a heightened risk if he was overweight in grade school and teased for it, or if obesity or eating disorders run in his family, or if he participates in a sport that emphasizes speed or weight control (such as wrestling, distance running, or cycling), or if he's gay, as are an estimated 18 percent of male anorexics.
There's no way to respond to that except to want to give these poor kids a hug.
It seems that society believes too fervently in the difference between boys and girls, treating them like they're two separate species when it comes to how they view their bodies, and insisting that we're totally different and separate, ignoring how much boys and girls have in common, is hurting both girls and boys.