Eating disorders can affect anyone. It’s a simple enough truth, but for some reason, people associate them almost exclusively with women. It isn’t bad to hear about women’s experiences and recovery stories, of course, but by focusing on this one group, a huge part of the population is left out: men.
There are many causes of eating disorders, and all of them have the potential to impact men and women alike. Research suggests that eating disorders have a strong genetic link, and these genes aren’t going to care if you’re a man or woman. Emotional issues that sometimes lead to eating disorders, such as low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression, also don’t depend on a person’s gender. Most importantly, however, are societal influences. While the types of beauty ideals seen in society differ for men and women, their effects can lead to the same dangerous disorders.
Similar to society’s message of “thin = beautiful” for women, men are under equal pressure to have huge, toned muscles in order to be considered attractive. In TV shows and movies, men with bodybuilder physiques are the heroes and stars; they get all the attention, they succeed in romance, and they reach their goals. Meanwhile, all other men (small men, overweight men, old men, you name it!) are typically cast as losers, computer nerds, science geeks, or that stereotypical “funny-but-ugly” best friend character. It’s the same story in advertising; commercials and advertisements on TV, in magazines, and even on billboards idealize men with big muscles and often don’t ever show men with diverse body types.
These ideas and idealizations of the male body embedded in media and advertising can easily lead to men developing eating, exercise, and body image disorders in the hopes of achieving this false idea of perfection. Men who feel pressured to fit society’s unrealistic expectations sometimes restrict their food intake and exercise excessively to get the “perfect” muscled and lean look, but this doesn’t lead them to the success and happiness that the media suggests it will: it only leads to unhappiness and the loss of health.
Even though societal pressures, false idealizations, and messages from the media clearly affect men too, eating disorder advocacy and education still focuses primarily on women. Men aren’t often included in advocacy campaigns or education efforts - this creates the totally untrue idea that they aren’t affected, in addition to perpetuating the common belief that eating disorders are only for women. What’s especially dangerous about the lack of awareness for men with eating disorders is that it makes them less likely to seek out treatment than women. Because eating disorders are so commonly associated with women, it’s easy for a man to feel embarrassed or ashamed to need treatment for a “woman’s disease.” Eating disorders are highly dangerous diseases, especially when left untreated; they have the highest mortality rate out of any mental illness, so it’s terrible to think of all the men who are too ashamed of their illness to ask for help.
So let’s throw gender stereotypes out the window and agree that no matter what gender you identify as, it’s important to make sure that your relationship with food, exercise, and body image are positive. Eating disorders don’t discriminate - but neither does happiness and health!