Why do we ignore eating disorders in men?

My friend Amber, who first dragged me to a doctor when depression/anorexia got its hooks into me, posted this article today on facebook.  Just…go read it.

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.

Depression and mental disorders suck enough on their own.  Facing them alone, they’re the very devil.  That is the position men are often in with eating disorders.

MENTAL ILLNESS: I see affection as a competition.
MENTAL ILLNESS: Today's session.
MENTAL ILLNESS & PERSONAL: Pictures of my brain.
MENTAL ILLNESS: Today's session.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Makoto

    Thank you. Eating disorders aren’t a gendered issue. Nor is depression. And they feed on each other, much as other issues do.

  • Liberated Liberal

    I’m glad that you made it out of the anorexia hell-hole, and that you have friends wonderful enough to help you through. Great post.

  • http://bensix.wordpress.com BenSix

    …doctors facing blaring, obvious symptoms of the disease, will ignore them because dudes can’t be anorexic.

    I also suspect this perception of anorexia as “a teenage girl’s disease” makes men especially sensitive to admitting that they have a problem. The same could be true of older women, as well.

    The GQ and Guardian articles are mostly concerned with blokes in the grip of anorexia. It struck me the other day that if I was in publishing one of the books I’d love to put together would be one by men who’d recovered or were going through recovery – to show the range of people who fall victim to the bastard so that guys who suffer from it, and people know them, can see (a) that it’s not just a disease of women and freaks and (b) that it can be beaten.

    If British readers would consider signing this, by the way, that would be great.

    • Mike Hitchcock


    • http://andythenerd.tumblr.com The Nerd

      It’s an ugly stereotype coin with two ugly hyperbolic sides. Women get nit-picked and men get ignored. Women’s bodies are objects; men’s bodies are subjects. When women (girls especially) have eating disorders, the instinct is to rush in and save her from herself. When men have eating disorders, the instinct is to assume men are so in control of everything, that it’s impossible that they could ever need help ever.

  • John Horstman

    As gender studies has expanded its scope (from the woman-focused Women’s Studies) to examine masculinities as well, we finally have a context for theorizing and studying body image issues in men. Indeed, Patriarchy Hurts Men Too. Historically, part of the problem is likely that mental illness has been viewed (and still is by some) as a personal failure of will, something that itself undermines a sense of masculinity (which is frequently constructed as based in agentic traits like self-reliance, strength of will, and broad competence – consider the phrase “man up”). Also consider that, for example, Gender Identity Disorder is diagnosed in male children on the basis of ‘effeminate’ traits or behaviors (the same is not true for female children, who must believe they are physically or psychologically male to be classified as experiencing GID); far more rigidly than femininity, a failure to embody normative masculinity is pathologized (what I personally find to be the most likely primary reason is that, in a sexist culture, a desire of women to embody traits or characteristics of the more-privileged gender category is viewed as being explained purely by self-interest – rational self-interest being the somewhat problematic and contested basis of Liberal conceptions of human cognition and the self – while a desire of men to embody traits of the marginalized gender category needs some other explanation; as a side note, I don’t find rational self interest to be a very good ‘explanation’ for transgendered behaviors, let alone identities, irrespective of the original or primary gender of the person in question, particularly in light of the disproportionate physical, relational, and cultural violence to which trans people are subjected). This is changing, though the MRA crowd’s misidentification of feminism (instead of patriarchy) as the source of legitimate instances of misandry (or, more specifically in this case, transphobia and effeminophobia expressed in misandrist ways) like this is not helping.

    Anyway, the short version is that mental illness generally and eating disorders specifically as seen as highly feminized, leading to cultural pressures toward systemic disavowal of the prevalence of the conditions among men.