Social stigma is a huge obstacle for recovery in males with eating disorders
The prevalence of eating disorders is such that boys and men are impacted as much as girls and women. The contributing factors for males are similar to those for women. Issues of poor body image are just as difficult for men as they are for women. A media study reports that more than four in five men (80.7%) talk in ways that promote anxiety about their body image by referring to perceived flaws and imperfections, compared with 75% of women.
Like their female counterparts, males are also bombarded with images and messages about the way they are supposed to look. For males, the action hero image that Hollywood portrays has become a standard for men. An overemphasis on male muscularity through media exposure makes young men may feel the pressure to be both lean and muscular to be socially acceptable. Men who struggle with these body image concerns may turn towards unhealthy and misconstrued forms of dieting and food manipulation. Some might even turn to steroid or hormone use, which can increase risk for developing disordered eating habits.
This pursuit for the all-masculine and tough male image can instigate muscle dysmorphia or the obsession about being muscularly inadequate.
Perhaps the biggest challenge that men face, when it comes to body image and eating disorders, is the issue of social stigma. The question then becomes, how to reduce social stigmas surrounding eating disorders. While there is a prevalence of eating disorders in Canada, there is also a severe lack of resources for treatment, research, or educational resources aimed to raise public awareness. As far as public education is concerned, a scarcity of resources impacts the ability to remove social stigmas about eating disorders, particularly for males.
Treatment and recovery for males
Traditionally, eating disorders have been characterized as “a female problem”, and this is one of the many social factors that lead to males being un-diagnosed or under-diagnosed. Unfortunately, men are traditionally reluctant to seek help. Therefore, data collected on male anorexia, bulimia and exercise dependence could be inaccurate and much higher than recorded.
As far as our society’s understanding of eating disorders in males, it remains a difficult challenge; figures in studies for males with eating disorders are somewhat elusive, assessment tests, for instance, have a gender bias because they are mostly designed for females. So, correcting false impressions that characterize eating disorders as female disorders is necessary in order to remove social stigmas for men. Any approach to recovery should not be “one-size-fits-all”. For any person, many factors, including cultural factors, should be taken into consideration in order to provide an effective support system that would promote a balanced recovery.
A gender-sensitive approach that recognizes different needs and dynamics for males is critical for effectiveness. Also, a support environment must provide a safe space for males so that they may explore, without judgment, aspects of themselves that they might perceive as vulnerabilities. Males may feel out of place in a supportive environment that is traditionally designed for females, simply because they feel they are surrounded by images and information that tend to focus predominantly on women’s recovery.
Men can be emotional too
Most of us are familiar with the expression man up! but don’t realize what these simple two words can do to someone. When strangers utter these words, it’s one thing, but when friends and family say them, the negative impact is even greater. Men need to express their emotions without fearing ridicule. We need an open dialogue where men can feel comfortable expressing worry and concern about their wellbeing.
2. Blouin AG, Goldfield GS. Body image and steroid use in male bodybuilders. Int J Eat Disord. 1995 Sep; 18(2):159-65. In: