Over the past year or so, more and more men have been surfacing in the media revealing that they have struggled with an Eating Disorder. Global pop stars like Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran have given interviews outlining their struggles with food and body image. And earlier this year, UK Cricket star Freddie Flintoff even released a full-length documentary about his almost life-long struggle with Bulimia.
Despite this influx of high-profile men admitting to their struggles with food, Eating Disorders are still often seen as a mental illness that only affects women and girls. Social worker and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, Kyle Ganson, has witnessed this firsthand while working in clinical settings in the U.S. and has now dedicated his research to finding out more about what Eating Disorders can look like in the male population. “Most of my research now is focused on things like excessive exercise or performance enhancing substance use, or muscle enhancing behaviours and sort of those more nuanced behaviours that do occur across the sexes and genders, but particularly among the male population,” he says.
Through his research and seven years of clinical experience Kyle believes that there are definitely more men out there that suffer from Eating Disorders than we think. He says this is because many males don’t present with the typical symptoms that are associated with the more well-known Eating Disorders like Anorexia and Bulimia. “Binge Eating Disorder is certainly pretty common among males and I think it’s probably under-reported,” he says. “I would imagine that there’s levels of Anorexia and Bulimia, like a-typical Anorexia maybe, that’s not as commonly reported as we might want to capture accurate prevalence rates.”
Men are definitely not immune to diet culture with many using diets and disordered eating to gain muscle, reduce body fat and achieve that “perfect” physique that they see in the media and online. Because dieting is so common in our society, Kyle says oftentimes healthcare professionals are not asking the right questions and might miss some tell-tale signs that a male is struggling with disordered eating or a full-blown Eating Disorder. “Males are often trying to gain weight so they might be engaging in a weight gain effort, trying to build more muscle or just in general improve athletic performance or physical performance,” he says. “I think those sort of [focuses] can get wrapped up into disordered eating behaviours.”
Not only is our healthcare system not screening men for Eating Disorders effectively, but it can also be very challenging for a male who is struggling to reach out for help. Often times men don’t even realize they have a problem or don’t know how to communicate that they are struggling. “I don’t think that we in general socialize males to talk about things like body image, talk about things like relationship with food, talk about things like feelings, emotions, experiences with all these different things,” Kyle says. “So I think just mental health literacy…If you don’t know you have a problem you can’t ask for help.”
Kyle says the way our treatment programs are structured can also be a barrier for many men with severe Eating Disorders to get help. As a male, it can be intimidating to enter group treatment with a primarily female patient base, and they may not identify with some of the themes and images that are used in traditional therapy. “That disproportionate sort of gender or sex make-up creates more problems and more barriers.”
Kyle is happy to see that more conversations are happening about males with Eating Disorders, but he believes that more can be done to call out diet culture messages that are fed to males in the media and online. Many men get sucked into stories about people like the billionaire CEO if Twitter, Jack Dorsey, eating only one meal a day…or Will Smith posting on Instagram about needing to get back in shape after his pandemic weight gain. Companies like Dove are creating campaigns geared towards women about the realities of re-touching and filters on social media without realizing that many men and boys are most likely doing the same thing. “They’re probably touching up their face, probably making their shoulders broader, making their muscles more defined or something but you don’t have that same sort of dialogue that’s occurring,” Kyle says.
According to Kyle more education is needed within the healthcare system to alert professionals of what symptoms may be indicative of Eating Disorders among men. The conversation around food and body image should also include young males so that they understand what a healthy relationship with food and their body looks like. Awareness is key when it comes to fighting Eating Disorders in general, but particularly for the male population who often get overlooked. “I think if we can normalize the inevitable experience we have with our bodies, if we can help educate males to have more insight into their own internal experience, that would certainly be encouraging and help move us in the right direction.”
Are you a male who has experienced an Eating Disorder? What barriers have you found to receiving treatment or support?