Anorexia, Binging, Body Image Dysmorphia – They’re Not Just ‘Women’s Problems’

Men struggling with eating disorders often have the same thoughts as women in such situations, but are rarely able to find the help they need.

“I’ve never been able to look at myself in a mirror.”

“I can’t stand looking at fat.”

“I hate fat.”

“I hate how my stomach looks. I hate the flab in the middle.”

These phrases sound typical of a young female, or at least female.

Strangely, these words were spoken by a male friend of mine…and funnily enough, a svelte and extremely handsome young man.

He’s struggled with body image issues for many years and listening to him, made me think about other male friends of mine who had the same issues with their bodies.

All these men are handsome, charming, have close to zero flab on any part of their bodies and have the greatest personalities, but all that loomed over them was the fact that they were just never good enough and didn’t look good.

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Most of them were struggling with their mental health and were going through compulsive thoughts in the form of obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxieties, and body image issues formed another rung on the ladder.

Not a lot of help for men struggling with body image

I was quite surprised when I heard more than two of my male friends confide in me that they were struggling with how they looked and after listening to them talk, I felt extremely sad because I began to realise that eating disorders and the support provided was targeted towards women and there was not a lot of help for men.

They seemed to have the same thoughts as the women we’ve read about who struggle with eating disorders.

One friend told me that ever since he divorced his ex-wife over 8 years ago, he’s never wanted to be in a relationship because he felt safe in a marriage where he felt like his wife was used to his body and that was not something he felt brave enough to explore in a new relationship.

He felt like he had let himself go since the marriage breakdown and needed to get back into ‘fitness’. I told him that he was extremely good looking and that he shouldn’t feel conscious about his physique, but that didn’t matter to him.

He was supposed to be at a cocktail party one night and the fact that one of his shirts fit a little too snug made him so self-conscious that he spent three hours daily on his rowing machine, exercycle and treadmill for over a month.

Another friend told me that he had refused to get close to women because that just put immense pressure on him when it came to physical intimacy. He knew that whoever he would date would eventually want more from him physically, and he just wasn’t ready to even be shirtless in front of his girlfriend and he had broken up with several women because he couldn’t bear getting any closer.

He missed having the physical touch of women, but his fear of exposing his body to someone who would find him disgusting kept him single for longer than he liked.

The fear of fat

All these men were massive calorie counters. They’d spend time reading everything on the nutrition information. They enjoyed alcohol but refused due to the sugar content in it. They stayed away from anything deep fried, anything with even a thin layer of fat on it and stuck to vegetable-based food like cauliflower rice versus actual rice because it would keep them away from fat.

Fat – that word seemed to scare them tremendously. I agree that eating healthy is the right way to lead our lives and yes, it is great to eat home cooked food rather than processed foods, but when a healthy lifestyle eats into your social life or stops you from enjoying time with friends, then there is an issue.

One friend would eat anything when he was out with friends, and then purge (either through laxatives or throwing up) when he got home. I didn’t realise this was his secret struggle until we were having dinner and he seemed quite anxious while he read the menu.

I’ve always prided myself on reading body language of those that I care about, and I knew something was off. He seemed to be taking an extraordinarily long time to choose something on that menu, and he’s usually someone who is quite decisive.

I leaned over and held his hand and asked if he wanted to go somewhere else, and the relief on his face spoke volumes. We ended up taking a walk around the mall and that’s when I discovered that he was thinking about how much he needed to run or work out the next day if he ate anything on that menu.

I was so distressed for him, and although I gave him the tightest hug possible, I knew that no hug or no words would help him become confident in his body.

I’ve struggled with binge eating most of my life too…

Listening to these stories and so many others made me realise that these amazing men were struggling in secret the same way so many women were. I’ve struggled with binge eating most of my life too.

Only my toilet bowl knows the hundreds of times when I’ve eaten so much and then stuck my fingers down my throat to throw up everything. Every centimetre that got added to me would scare me because that made me feel less attractive. Yes, I know that sounds shallow, but whether we like to admit it or not, we are conditioned to believe skinny = beautiful.

I recently had a health battle and lost quite a lot of weight. It was over the covid lockdowns so when people saw me after many months, I was considerably smaller, and the first thing that anyone said to me was, “hey, you look great.” Or “My goodness! You’re such a fabulous woman.”

Sure, all those compliments were great, but in my mind, with all the over analysing my brain is prone to, I began to wonder why was I given these compliments when I was skinny and not a single damn one when I was overweight?

In my mind, I was the same person, fat or thin, but clearly everyone around me didn’t think I was fabulous or great while I was fat.

I could now see the struggles my friends were facing. They’ve always been told that they look great only when they’re slim with no paunch or love handles. One of my friends even told me, “Women sometimes have an excuse when they gain weight. They sometimes can blame it on becoming mothers, or hormones but men have no excuse when we gain weight. It comes down to lack of self-control.”

Now, that might not be entirely true, but I could understand his thinking. I began to read about male eating disorders and realised that the research was fairly new. 1 in 3 people suffering from eating disorders are male according to NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association).

Eating disorders are not just bulimia or anorexia. There are a range that I think we as a civilised society need to educate ourselves on.

Most men believe that a lean and muscular body is the ideal type because of the internalisation of media that is mainly focussed on sexual objectification.

When was the last time we saw an ad with a pot-bellied man trying to sell underwear or perfume? Are only lean and muscular men worthy of Calvin Klein perfumes or Armani suits?

Men, just like women struggle with body image issues…

…and that can be crippling. The fear of perception of their body type can lead men to spiral into one or more eating disorders.

An intense fear of weight gain can lead them as means to achieve perceived thinness.

We need to understand that eating disorders are not physical issues, they are serious mental health issues which need to be normalised and spoken about to help those struggling in silence.

Research has also found that men do not seek help for their eating disorders due to the stigma that goes with it. Part of the issues that heterosexual men face is the stigma of anorexia in particular, being associated with the gay community.

Close to 40% of men with eating disorders have identified as homosexual, however gay men are also more likely to seek help than men of other sexual orientations.

All my friends are heterosexual, so I can only write from that perspective. They struggled with body dysmorphia, where they believed that their appearance was flawed, and in this case, it was their midriff. It was the flab around their stomach that only they could see. They avoided social engagements, unless it was mandated by their workplaces, and had a very small friend circle.

My friends, though they were quite close to me, could not confide in me straight away about the types of foods they were comfortable eating for fear of judgement.

They were afraid that I would think they were weird, or strange or fussy and it took several months before they could trust me with their proclivities.

I began to understand that eating disorders were a bigger issue in our society, and our presumptions that these are just a female problem need to be broken, and like most issues, it is education.

…and to all my male friends and men struggling in silence, please know that yes, societal pressures are huge on how we all need to look and yes, we are judged by our appearance.

This, however, does not change that you are all amazing human beings with great personalities and a good heart, so please don’t allow perceptions of your physical appearance take away from the real you!

Image Credits Merrysky/Diversifylens via Canva Pro

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About the Author

Cheryl Christopher

Cheryl Christopher is a mum, a working professional and a writer by passion. She was featured in a published anthology by Scholastic India, published a book in 2019 and writes for several online writing communities. read more...

6 Posts | 14,581 Views

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