4 Things We Can Do to End Male Eating Disorder Stigma
As a male with an eating disorder, I sometimes feel left out of the conversation, and the stereotypes and stigma that surround eating disorders only make it harder for men like me to reach out for help.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Here are four things we can do help end the stigma around men with eating disorders.
1. Online resources need to reflect updated research.
Although older studies had found 1 in 10 people with eating disorders were male, it has since been found that as many as 1 in 3 people with an eating disorder are male. Yet, the “1 in 10” statistic is still found on the websites of treatment centers and even on the website of the National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders. By continuing to tell people, men and women, the number of males with eating disorders are 1 in 10, we’re continuing the bias toward women and stereotype against men. When “educational resources” online (like this) continue to use this outdated statistic, it will only hurt those of us who desperately need care in a world of female-only programs and hospitals.
2. We need to update our literature.
Right now, 99 percent of eating disorder books have a female bias. And although I’ve seen books include a disclaimer that the authors “know males have eating disorders,” continuing to exclusively use “she,” “her” and “female” is not helping males. We have an opportunity to educate people in our books, and we’re excluding a large percentage of readership by essentially ignoring them. The fix to this, of course, is to use gender-inclusive language (“they,” “their” and “people” instead of “she,” “her” and “female”). It’s not that hard to do. It’s a matter of choice, not practicality.
When you have an eating disorder, your brain is already telling you you’re not good enough. And what can be more triggering than to basically be told “Yeah, we see you, but because I think there are so few of you I’m going to focus on everyone else instead”? Include gender-inclusive language in your books and literature. It’ll make all the difference in the world to someone who thinks they are alone.
3. We need more education and research.
Even in a hospital that treats both genders for eating disorders, I’ve seen bulletin boards littered with yoga groups that meet two or three times a week — but are female only. I’ve seen ads for experiential groups that are female only. Research programs looking for women to run labs and perform experimental drug trials on. One of the more maddening aspects to being a male with an eating disorder is seeing all those flyers for research opportunities for women with eating disorders and not seeing a single sentence anywhere stating that males are encouraged to participate, too.
Now, I understand, to a point, why this is. When you have programs looking at estrogen levels or bone loss in relation to lack of menstruation, then of course you want to focus on women. But there are missed opportunities here. I’m told all the time the reason more males aren’t allowed into treatment centers is because the research just isn’t there to warrant a massive change in the way people are treated. But this leaves us in a catch-22, because there aren’t enough people willing to do the research in the first place.
We should increase education in grade schools, colleges and universities about the prevalence of men with eating disorders to end the stigma that eating disorders are a “girls’ disease.”
4. Open more programs and hospitals with gender-inclusive treatment options.
As the number of people with eating disorders increases, the number of treatment options has to increase to accommodate the demand. Continuing to open female-only programs and hospitals will continue the stigma that eating disorders are a girls’ disease (though any hospital that opens that treats eating disorders is certainly very welcome!). I shouldn’t have to fly a thousand miles to get to the nearest hospital that will take me because of my gender (which I’ve done). For many people that’s simply not an option, and this limits access to treatment. The sooner we get the appropriate amount of treatment for those who desperately need it, the sooner these same people will be able to get back into school, or into the workforce, or to their families and their children. And the more likely their eating disorder will fail at killing them.
These are problems that cannot be put off another five to 10 years. They need to be addressed now. Instead of putting the solution off and onto someone else’s shoulders, why not address it yourself? Take an active role in making a difference and maybe this generation could be the last to have so many people suffer without access to treatment. Change is unlikely to happen without change, but hey, I can dream.