f I say the words “Eating Disorder” to you, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Perhaps it’s the typical media portrayal of a severely underweight white young woman, weirdly always with a tape measure or an apple close by. And yes, whilst young, white, underweight women do get eating disorders, that is far from the full story.
I am not a woman, nor am I currently underweight, and there’s not a tape measure in sight. But I still have an eating disorder, and have had one for over half of my life. But ‘eating disorders are eating disorders, they’re all the same, right?’ Wrong. Eating disorders are about as unique as our fingerprints, each one is slightly different and though there may be some reoccurring themes between people’s symptoms, there are always nuances along the way.
And eating disorders do not discriminate; anyone of any age, gender, race, background, class, faith or anything else can suffer. Mostly though, anyone of any body size can have an eating disorder. Most recent data in the UK suggests that over 40% of those with eating disorders are in the “Obese” category when using the awful classification system that is BMI. Only 6% are underweight yet that’s all we hear about. Up to 35% are men, yet we so often only see women, women’s voices and research focussed towards women, why is this? Why are men not recognised as much? From personal experience, a huge lack of understanding, awareness and education certainly makes a big impact, but one of the biggest factors is the word no one wants to see but everyone knows exists: stigma.
My eating disorder developed very suddenly at the age of 11. I didn’t want to lose weight, I definitely wasn’t on a diet and still to this day I am not 100% sure why it happened, but it did. The first time my GP said the words “eating disorder” I thought “nah, that’s a girl’s issue, not me”. Sadly almost everything I have been through since proves that a lot of society and indeed the medical profession is rooted in this stigma, too.
Right from the start I feel as though I wasn’t taken seriously, like my parents’ concerns were belittled and like they just thought it was some sort of phase I was going through. But I would say the main issue I faced was simply a lack of knowledge. When someone has an eating disorder, the questionnaires always have a “Women only: Are you still having regular periods?” (or words to that effect). Of course, this is a very important question, but never have I seen a “Men: Have you lost sexual desire, morning erections, or have you stopped growing (if in adolescence)?”
I had not grown for nearly 4 years, right at the time teenagers do most of their development. No one asked or thought to ask about my hormones. Little did I know at the time that I had absolutely no testosterone. I had to diagnose myself in the end but the damage was done. I’ll never fully develop as a man and that hurts so much to say. It knocks my confidence, makes me feel less of a person and fills me with regret, but it is something I have to face for the rest of my life.
The next little nugget of gender discrimination in Eating Disorders services came when I was hospitalised due to my eating disorder. I was put under the crisis team and I was, for the first time in my life, hoping that I would be able to get some help. Oh how that hope disappeared into despair within about 20 minutes. First appointment, almost the first thing that was said to me: “We’ve never had a man in our service before so don’t really know what to do with you.” That phrase will always stick with me. It made me feel hopeless, unable to be helped and like no one knew how to help me anyway. That was the first and last time I have been in the system, because since then I haven’t been “unwell” enough and my BMI has been “too high” for treatment. That one and only time, I was in a system for 6 months whilst they tried to allocate me to a funding bracket. They never did.
And I would say that’s the reoccurring theme for me and so many others with Eating Disorders. We are dealing with an overstretched, underfunded and massively under-resourced system that can only help those most unwell instead of giving early, targeted and individualised interventions that those suffering with eating disorders need and deserve.
There is some hope though. Lots of amazing people raising awareness, a growing media focus and, at least some, people in power who are taking notice. But to make real change we need funding, training, research and lots and lots of targeted, ringfenced investment to eating disorders services. That will take time, but I truly do believe it is possible. But we can also do so much for many men, and indeed women, to help prevent some eating disorders too.
Society’s incessant focus on calories, body image and aesthetics is damaging and highly dangerous. We need to really work on embracing everyone for the beautiful, unique individuals we are and celebrate health at every size. It’s a huge change and will challenge lots of people’s internalised weight stigma, but we have to try, as it would save and help so, so many people.
The last thing I’d say is this. Men get eating disorders too. There is no shame in that and we need to do everything we can to end the stigma. Your struggles are valid, and you deserve support.