Men can have anorexia, too. Yup, you read that correctly. Unfortunately, an obvious stigma exists towards men who struggle with eating disorders, although these conditions can affect anyone when certain risk factors are in place. As a society, we must recognize that anorexia does occur in men so that 1) men can hopefully feel more comfortable coming forward to seek help and 2) so the nuances of anorexia in males can be understood and they receive gender-sensitive treatment, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
Disguised, But Nonetheless Prevalent
According to Hudson (2007), around 25% of individuals with anorexia are male. While this prevalence is significant, it may not accurately reflect the presence of anorexia in males. One reason is that eating disorder assessments tend to be geared towards women – subsequently, males who do exhibit anorexia symptoms may be underscored and thereby seen as not meeting criteria for this disorder (Darcy, 2014). Moreover, men may be less likely to recognize that they are struggling with anorexia when symptoms show up. Some of their behaviors may seem to be part of normal gym or fitness culture, even if they may cause them physical or emotional distress. Furthermore, male body types may disguise the extent of weight loss present in anorexia. Regardless of whether males are aware of their symptoms, they may not acknowledge their concerns as anorexia is often stigmatized as a women’s-only issue. Subsequently, a majority of men with anorexia do not seek treatment.
I Identify as Male. How Might I Know I Have Anorexia?
You won’t receive an official anorexia diagnosis unless you are evaluated by a medical or mental health professional. However, you can get a sense of your condition by examining your relationship with eating, exercise, and body image. Ask yourself:
- Do you restrict your energy intake by controlling food consumption and/or exercising?
- Have you lost a substantial amount of weight in a short period of time?
- Are you constantly worried or hypervigilant about gaining weight/becoming fat?
Do you put a lot of time/effort into your meal choices and/or exercise regimen?
- Is a significant part of your self-worth linked to what your body looks like?
- Are you preoccupied with bodybuilding or weightlifting?
- Do you feel guilty or stressed when you miss a workout?
You may find that you continue engaging in your eating patterns or exercise regimen despite negative impacts on your health, such as injuries from exercise. Look at whether you feel weak, rather than stronger and healthier from your diet and exercise patterns. Also, along with these other symptoms, a decreased interest in sex might be a sign of anorexia as energy restriction lowers testosterone levels.
What are Some Anorexia Risk Factors for Males?
Some men are at a higher risk of developing anorexia than others. While most males with eating disorders are heterosexual, men who identify as gay or who struggle with gender identity are more likely to develop anorexia. Gay male culture, similar to female culture, idealizes thinner and leaner bodies, which could influence gay men to engage in unhealthy behaviors to fulfill this ideal. For men who are struggling with sexual identity, restriction of food can lead to a numbness in emotions and sexual desire, which blunts sexual feelings that they may not be ready to face. Even in heterosexual culture, male bodies are objectified and sexualized, which could lead to body dissatisfaction (Cohn, 2013). As early as teenage years, boys can internalize society’s expectations of an ideal lean/muscular male body; to fit this mold, they may resort to changes in diet and exercise which could ultimately be taken to an extreme.
Other risk factors may put men at higher risk for anorexia. These include early abuse, such as sexual abuse or harassment, as well as weight-related bullying. These incidents may have led to a feeling of chaos or powerlessness in the man’s life – subsequently, changing their diet and losing weight may help them feel empowered and in control of themselves and how others treat them. Moreover, participation in certain types of sports or athletic endeavors can increase a man’s risk of anorexia. Running, wrestling, dancing, swimming, gymnastics, and body building often emphasize some type of weight loss or nutritional restriction to enhance performance. These requirements may spark or worsen anorexia symptoms. Lastly, certain comorbid conditions might contribute to anorexia, including substance abuse, depressive, and anxiety disorders.
What Might Treatment Look Like?
Anorexia in males is on the rise – this might not exclusively reflect that more males are developing symptoms, but may be due to more males acknowledging their condition and seeking help. Depending on the individual’s risk factors and life circumstances that contribute to their anorexia, treatment should be specific to their unique needs. For instance, a male struggling with accepting homosexuality may need to explore their sexual identity and find ways to tolerate or resolve whatever discomfort their identify conflicts bring up, and how they relate to their eating disorder. The specific behaviors of each man’s disorder (restriction, excessive exercise) should also be taken into consideration; focusing on these details will be helpful in creating a recovery plan. Overall, attention to gender dynamics and gender-specific biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors of anorexia in males is critical in the process of treatment (Bunnell, 2014).
Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual therapy and facilitates a Body Image Group for adults and adolescents with disordered eating, body dissatisfaction, and comorbid disorders. If you are a male struggling with anorexia or any other type of disordered eating, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment to repair your relationship with food and body image.