When it comes to eating disorders, there isn’t any other health condition or disease where your gender would play a significant role or influence on how someone perceives you. This unfortunate and inaccurate stereotype of eating disorders being a woman’s problem creates stigma which prevents people from seeking help sooner.
It needs to be understood that eating disorders do not discriminate. They are increasingly observed across a wide range of ages, demographics, races, cultures, and of course, gender. When I was anorexic, I seemed to take it all in stride and just dealt with the fact that I stood out or was apparently different than the women in my group therapy or 12-Step groups (which actually had a few men but we were always still in the minority).
But was I different? Other than biological differences on the surface, I don’t think so. Of course, everyone’s experience, from onset of disease through recovery, is going to be unique to them, but there are universal similarities across experiences – otherwise, group therapy or meetings probably wouldn’t be very effective! And so it was that I found myself in group therapy once a week for over a year, the only person – including the counselors – who wasn’t biologically female, but still relating to the things being shared and occasionally having some worthwhile input for a fellow patient. I had a similar experience in 12-step meetings.
Group therapy was at a university, so we were all at least around the same age and in a similar time in our lives, transitioning from our parents’ houses to living on our own and dealing with the demands of higher education. When I attended Overeaters Anonymous, I felt like I stood out even more. I was an emaciated 19 year old male, surrounded by mostly or entirely women who were usually at least twice my age and struggling with overeating.
So, across gender, periods of life, age, and specific classification of disease (anorexia, bulimia, compulsive overeating, and binge eating), I found a common experience in the way that eating disorders impacted our lives and the hurdles we encountered in recovery.
Despite these commonalities, I stood out, and I knew it. Yes, men make up a smaller percentage of those afflicted by eating disorders. But I wonder how much greater that number would be if the stigma and stereotypes didn’t prevent other men from getting help? The approach to eating disorder awareness and recovery in general is inherently feminine – something I’ve come to think of as the ‘Hey, Ladies!’ mindset.
From the perspective of a recovered male, I can recall initially feeling estranged by the use of pronouns in literature. Before I sought real professional help, I
read a lot of books on eating disorders, and most of them used female pronouns almost exclusively, with no interchanging. If they mentioned men at all, it was usually as a footnote at the beginning or the end, but never given an equal or worthwhile focus.
I also participated in an online support forum, which was a great middle ground. The internet can potentially be a dangerous place for someone with an eating disorder, but a community with strict, rigid moderation (no weights, no numbers, no specific behaviors) can be an excellent source of support, and the anonymity of it all was a great stepping stone to develop a voice of recovery. Anyway, I was one of the only guys, and it was really unnerving how so many posts would start with “Hey ladies! I could use some support today…” and I had to stop myself from responding to every single one that it wasn’t just women.
What it comes down to is that my entire recovery (and likely, countless other males) was about fitting myself into a recovery culture mostly designed, tailored, and intended for females. The only place this wasn’t a problem was in 12-Step groups. I even got turned away initially from the group therapy which played an integral role in my recovery – the only one my school offered – because I wasn’t a woman. However, the things I was reading and hearing made sense to me and they worked when I applied them to my own recovery, so I kept at it. I knew that if I didn’t get better, anorexia would kill me, and over time developed a thick skin when it came to issues of gender. I’m positive, though, that other guys don’t always get that far. The tide of ignorance and stigma surrounding eating disorders is a strong current to go against, even for women. How much harder is it for men, who potentially fear having their masculinity or sexuality questioned over a mental health illness? If this concerned any other health condition, be it diabetes or alcoholism or schizophrenia, no one would be talking exclusively about men OR women. It’s time that discussions surrounding eating disorders are gender-inclusive, too. As I said in my previous post, if the field of eating disorder treatment, awareness, and research is to advance, it must be done with gender neutrality and inclusivity, lest we leave behind those who are struggling and suffering and dying over a simple matter of biology.
Sometimes people default to feminine pronouns out of convenience. Perhaps they feel it will apply to a greater audience, the majority anyway. And perhaps it does. Undeniably, there is a greater patient population of women with eating disorders to collect data on, to study, to interview, and to generalize. At the same time, though, the most successful and most well-known eating disorder treatment facility in America ONLY takes female patients.
But guess what? Every study and every book and every blog which ignores the problem of men with eating disorders or relegates it to a footnote is by default perpetuating the stigma and social misperceptions of men with eating disorders. If a young man or his friends or his parents go online or to a book store or look anywhere for information or support and all they find is that the majority of what’s available is talking about women, I worry about what will happen to that young man. It doesn’t help that anorexia itself is quite good on it’s own at tricking you into thinking you don’t have a problem, or that you don’t need to gain weight or that your eating habits are perfectly “normal”. I definitely had moments in my recovery where I questioned if I even had an eating disorder due to all the misinformation.
After all of that, pastel logos with butterflies and flowers don’t exactly make me feel welcome, because when combined with all that other stuff, it has an undeniably more feminine vibe. I’ll be the first to say that gender roles are archaic- I say that if boys want to play with dolls and if girls want to play with trucks, let them, and I prefer the term ‘partner’ over girlfriend. But when I was sick and anorexia had me constantly worried about my weight and body, it wasn’t so easy to shrug those things off. Other people’s perceptions of what was masculine and what I felt was expected of me as a male sometimes got in the way, especially with my willingness to talk to my parents. Looking back, I can see that anorexia had just clouded my judgment and instilled doubt and shame in my mind. I’m blessed with two of the most loving parents I could ask for, so if there was anyone I shouldn’t have worried about perceiving me differently, it was them.
No more tip-toeing around it. Guys get eating disorders, too. It’s time to deal with it.
Matt Wetsel is an eating disorder survivor turned activist from the United States. You can see his blog, ‘Until Eating Disorders Are No More’, at arenomore.wordpress.com