Rebecca Cooper, MA, MFT, CCH, CEDS When in history has a male ever been concerned about fitting into a pair of skinny jeans? Media has hyper-focused on the skinny male model. Today’s fashion is geared towards the emaciated male in a pair of skinny jeans. This male body image does not occur naturally unless someone is ill. We now have a whole culture of men trying to obtain an impossible body image. There appears to be a rise in the number of males with eating disorders. According to NEDA, at least one million males in the United States have an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. But these numbers are skewed due to the high prevalence of undiagnosed males with eating disorders.
Twenty years ago, very few people even knew what an eating disorder was. Today, the public awareness of eating disorders has allowed some men with anorexia to come forward. But most males will not seek treatment for eating disorders because of the shame, the fact that there are fewer male residential treatment centers and the misperception that eating disorders only occurs in females or gay men.
How can you tell if someone has anorexia nervosa? A male with anorexia nervosa is less than 85 percent of normal body weight. He avoids eating, has poor body image and may exercise obsessively. He is intensely concerned about losing flab or building muscle. He believes he is fat when others are telling him that he is too thin. It is important to note that he really does see himself as fat. It is caused by deficiencies in the brain brought on by starvation. Anorexia nervosa may actually compromise the ability to reason in its victims. People with anorexia usually also have one or more co-occurring disorders such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression. Males and females both suffer many of the same symptoms of anorexia, such as:
When someone with anorexia under-eats, the brain may dispense feelings of euphoria that briefly counteract anxious or depressed feelings. In this way, food restriction is used as an anti-depressant or a way to “zone out.” A male with anorexia uses the obsessive thoughts of weight, diet, food (not eating) and body image as a way of pushing down feelings or past traumas. This is common for all types of eating disorders.
The highest number of males with eating disorders have binge eating disorder, compulsive overeating or obesity. These boys and men often do not get treatment until they have diabetes, heart attacks or other weight-related diseases. There are many causes of eating disorders. Genetics can make a person more predisposed to acquiring an eating disorder. This usually occurs in families who have eating disorders or other addictions.
The desire for control makes a male more vulnerable to the disease. This is often the result of feeling smothered or abandoned and misunderstood by their families. Many males report that they had parents who overemphasized physical appearances. In these families, the individual learned to keep his feelings, doubts, fears, anxieties and imperfections hidden. There may be family issues that they try to avoid by focusing on their disorders and their ability to control their food intake.
Having a perfectionistic personality type can be a factor in the development of anorexia. Most males with anorexia are above average students and may have excelled at sports. Some say perfectionism is the leading cause of male anorexia. Perfectionism leads to the desire to be good, accepted, perfect and in control — all of which are prerequisites of anorexia. Male anorexia is lethal. When the body is not fed it will take fat from the muscles and organs to sustain life. Males generally have less fat than females, so there is the added complication of losing muscle mass. The heart is an important muscle that may be affected. In addition, potassium and electrolyte imbalances may be a risk factor for cardiac problems such as heart attacks.
With the rise in male eating disorders and associated risks, it is imperative that men with eating disorders seek help!
If you or a loved one needs more information Rebecca’s House Eating Disorder Treatment Programs offers free eating disorder assessments and information, call 800-711-2062. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.