MALE EATING DISORDERS

BODY IMAGE, HEALTH, MENTAL HEALTH

Having watched the Freddie Flintoff documentary about his struggle with bulimia I have been thinking about the unique challenges of male eating disorders. Thank you Connor for being so open about his ongoing recovery from his, including how it intersects with his relationship with exercise; really eye-opening.

  • In my second year of University, I went to join the boxing club at my university. Looking back, I was wanting to prove myself to those around me. I was always the bigger kid, all the way until I left to go to University. Although I had already lost a lot of weight to ‘transform’ myself, getting into boxing felt like the perfect way to end this transformation.

  • Look at the big kid from school who lost the weight and then went on to do one of the toughest sports in the world! So cool, right? It turns out that I genuinely enjoyed the boxing and started to turn up regularly. I would go for the workout, but mainly for the new friends I began to make and still cherish to this day. 

  • After around 6 months of this training, my coach asked me whether I wanted to compete. This was an amazing opportunity for me to really prove myself, so I grabbed it with both hands.

  • After I accepted this competition, I completely overhauled my training and diet habits. I went from training regularly to obsessively, training up to twice a day nearly every day of the week. I would also count every calorie I consumed, on top of strict rules on what kind of food I ate and at what times I ate it. To top it off, I would weigh myself each morning to add to a calendar where I tracked every measurement over my two months of preparation. 

  • It was hard work and I began to see this once passion of mine as a ‘grind’. I would be in true pain each day, it’s no wonder looking back considering how little I was eating compared to the exercise I was doing. However, this didn’t matter as I had a weight bracket to meet. I was making it, no matter what.

  • To my amazement, as the weight-loss started to creep up, I started getting compliments.

  • “Connor you’re looking so lean! So athletic!”

  • Without realising, I had internalised a dark idea. To be desirable and be worthy of attention, I had to lose weight. When I lost weight in college, people complimented then too on how ‘good’ I looked. This is clearly what I have to do! Thank the lord that I’ve finally found it! All I have to do was to maintain these habits, little did I know how harmful they were. 

  • Fast forward to the fight, I sadly lost to a close decision. I wasn’t too bothered looking back, as I had a newfound obsession on my mind: food.

  • Around 20 minutes after my fight, I had my first binge episode. In this binge, you eat as much as possible until you are uncomfortably full. This usually stems from a sustained restriction in food intake, which is what I was under for months at this point.

  • My obsession had started long before the fight, but I resisted the urges to binge as I had a weight category to meet. I was reading the menu for uber eats more than I was reading for my university lectures at this point. Everybody around me found it funny. Look at this guy who has been restricting for months! He has earned this indulgence!

  • I got home and binged some more that night, still in the mindset that I was just indulging.

  • The fear came the next morning. “Wait, I’ve got to lose weight to keep people’s attention! What do I do now?”. I ‘corrected’ these binges by going out on big runs and gruelling gym sessions, I had to burn the excess. For good measure, I would up the restrictions to keep that weight down. Little did I know, this just increased the urge to binges. I fell into a cycle which led to me bingeing more, losing more weight and ultimately breaking down.

  • I was eventually weighing myself multiple times a day, body-checking every time I passed a mirror.

  • I began to lose passion for the things I found interesting. I eventually started to avoid social gatherings as I feared that other people would think I am fat – this was even at my lowest weights.  I was struggling deeply and my path was going to places that I struggle to think of. 

  • I spoke to a good friend at the time and he told me to get in touch with my doctor. I didn’t want to do this at the time, I thought I could sort out these issues myself. Regardless, I went and told the doctor what was going on. He told me that he believes that I am suffering with an eating disorder and referred me to specialists for help. That day my recovery started and I couldn’t be more grateful, but there was a barrier I hit early that I see holding back many others in my position.

  • Eating disorders are something that we are rarely taught about. Because of this, I wanted to search for other’s experiences with this nasty illness. I searched through Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, everywhere. I found many experiences, all of which were invaluable to learn from. However, there was one lesson that I was missing:

  • Men suffer from eating disorders too.

  • I cannot recall seeing one man on my search for eating disorder experiences. I was briefly convinced that I wasn’t suffering with an eating disorder. I had the thought of not going through with my recovery, as I must be going through something else. Not an eating disorder, despite all the disordered eating habits, just something similar.

  • Little did I know that around a quarter of eating disorder sufferers are men. Despite this, we hear little about men with eating disorders. This is extremely harmful. As we stereotypically believe that only women suffer with eating disorders, there are great risks of missing signs of disordered attitudes. This is true for both doctors, who receive extremely little education on eating disorders1, to friends of those affected.

  • Men present different issues when it comes to eating disorder and food/body related issues on the whole.

  • For example, this can be seen with sharp increase in ‘muscle dysmorphia’ or ‘bigorexia’. This is a condition where men are overly obsessed with musculature, leanness and their general body image and show eating disorder symptoms and other harmful methods of changing their bodies. This is a devastating condition that affects around 1 in 10 men who go to the gym in the UK 2. It doesn’t take long to find many articles evidencing significant increases in steroid us in the UK3. nor how young kids are now increasingly affected by pressure on how they should eat, look and more4.

  • This point is assuming that men will seek help in the first place, which is also a great problem for men on the whole5. Throw into the mix that they are suffering from a ‘female issue’, the chances of reaching out are even further decreased.

  • Men are silently suffering with eating disorders, body image issues and related issues. I feel that a large part of this silence stems from issues with the toxic culture men feel conditioned to live up. This culture preaches ideals of constantly striving to be bigger. Not fat, that’s bad. But bulky! Strapped with muscles! Just also make sure you’re not small, we don’t like that neither. Anything that strays from these unattainable ideals are quickly shamed, just ask Zac Efron and his ‘Dad bod’6.

  • Unsurprisingly, many men are negatively affected by this as we live in a culture that boils down a significant sense of our worth to how our body looks. It is not about health, as many of the means we use to attain ‘better’ bodies are categorically damaging to our health. It’s deeper than health, it’s a fundamental indicator of how worthy we are to be in the world.

  • As more men remain silent on these experiences, the less we can understand and help these awful afflictions. This silence is perpetuating a stereotype that is ultimately killing many men7. Whether this be kill ones personality in part or whole, or kills them entirely. It needs to stop. Part of stopping this mistaken narrative from carrying on is learning about the experiences of males suffering from eating disorders.

  • Thankfully, more high-profile figures such as Freddie Flintoff in his recent documentary are speaking up on these issues8. This will hopefully send a message that it is ok for men to suffer from these issues, but we all need to make a collective effort in spreading this message. 

  • Encourage the men in your life to speak up. Encourage them to open up to those who can help them, take them off the path that harms so many. Don’t just ask “How are you doing?”, check how they are really doing. If you’re a man, speak out. There is help out there, even if it feels that you are alone in this. 

References:

1- https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jun/18/doctors-failings-on-eating-disorders-are-costing-lives

2 – https://theconversation.com/muscle-dysmorphia-why-are-so-many-young-men-suffering-this-serious-mental-health-condition-147706

3 – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/21/up-to-a-million-britons-use-steroids-for-looks-not-sport

4 – https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/may/09/anyone-popular-at-school-has-muscles-the-rise-of-the-ripped-teen

5 – https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/m/men-and-mental-health

6 – https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/27/zac-efron-dad-bod-actor

7 – https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/general-information/research-on-males

8 – https://metro.co.uk/2020/09/28/freddie-flintoff-man-suffered-bulimia-eating-disorder-male-exercise-13329214/).

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