From Media to Science: What Do We Get Wrong and Right about Men and Eating Disorders?
By Leigh C. Brosof
For a long time, there was a belief in mainstream society that “boys don’t get eating disorders” and that eating disorders were a “girls’” issue. Fortunately, this view is changing with both research and the media becoming more inclusive in conversations around eating disorders. Researchers have shown that eating disorders and disordered eating are still highly prevalent among men. In fact, men suffer from some eating disorder symptoms (such as binge eating) just as much as women. While we are making great strides towards lessening the stigma around men and eating disorders, some misperceptions still abound, such as: 1) that you must be underweight to have an eating disorder, and 2) that there must be something “wrong” with men who get eating disorders. These misperceptions reflect general myths around eating disorders.
Misperception 1: You must be underweight in order to have an eating disorder.
Whereas this is untrue for every gender (eating disorders can affect individuals of any size!), it may make it particularly difficult for men to seek help, especially because symptoms such as binge eating, may not fit one’s “typical” view of an eating disorder. In addition, when men do start losing weight or become underweight, individuals may not think about an eating disorder as the problem. This misperception makes it more difficult for men to accept they have symptoms of an eating disorder or for medical professionals to spot these symptoms in men.
Misperception 2: There is something “wrong” with men who get eating disorders.
Despite societal stereotypes surrounding eating disorders, men are more similar than different in comparison to women when it comes to eating disorders. This means that there is a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors that lead to the development of a disorder. Therefore, men’s eating disorder are not a “choice,” and it’s not anyone’s “fault” if they develop eating disorders. Rather, it is a serious mental health disorder. Men may also experience some types of eating disorder symptoms, such as muscle dysphoria, at higher rates than women. Muscle dysmorphia is when an individual has a drive to become more muscular and has insecurities around not being muscular enough. For men, this desire for muscularity may be coupled with a desire to be thinner or leaner. Men may also have concerns about different areas of their bodies than women. These similarities mean that, in general, treatments that have been developed for women should also work for men; however, it also means that certain aspects of these treatments should be tailored specifically for men.
It’s also essential to remember that eating disorders affect people of ALL genders. In fact, some research suggests that individuals who are transgender or non-binary have eating disorders at higher rates than individuals who identify as cis-gender. Although the exact reason for this higher prevalence is not well-understood, it may have something to do with the stressors (and discrimination) that society puts on these individuals for not adhering to the gender binary. Research and treatments are slowly starting to include not only males, but also individuals of all genders; however, more effort still needs to be devoted in order to best serve individuals across the gender spectrum. For instance, right now, a comprehensive assessment of gender identity does not exist – something that our lab is trying to change. The most important thing that society and research can do is to acknowledge that eating disorders do not discriminate – we need to include individuals of all genders in the conversation to decrease stigma and increase the likelihood that men and individuals of other genders will seek treatment.
If you are a man who is suffering from an eating disorder, to learn more about men and eating disorders or for resources for treatment: http://namedinc.org/
Reflections from the NEDA walk
By: Cheri A. Levinson, Ph.D.
I was fortunate to join over 200 fellow walkers on Saturday to fight against eating disorders and bring awareness to the psychiatric disorder with the highest rates of mortality. I left the walk feeling extremely inspired. Inspired to continue the hard work that my team at the University of Louisville (www.louisvilleeatlab.com) and at the Behavioral Wellness Clinic (http://bewellproviders.com/) spend our lives on.
Perhaps the most inspiring part of the walk was the community of people coming together showing our state and the city of Louisville how many people are impacted and that we are not alone. As I said in my speech (read full transcript here) ‘…every day I have conversations with people, many of you who are here, many who are across the globe, but all who care about changing society and the treatment of EDs for the better. This inspires me.’ It was inspirational to see so many people come together to bring about change. It made me feel not alone, as I am sure it did to most all who attended the walk.
But I also left the walk feeling that a few messages still need to be communicated. A WDRB article (http://www.wdrb.com/story/36382951/hundreds-take-part-in-walk-at-bellarmine-university-to-raise-awareness-of-eating-disorders) covered the walk and highlighted two points. First, more treatment centers are needed locally. Second, there is very little research funding allocated to eating disorders. These messages need to be out there. But I also think that a word of caution is needed when putting these messages to the public.
More treatment centers are needed locally. Yes! This is a given. Our community needs a treatment center. We are a city of 1 million people, meaning at least 70,000 people in our community have an eating disorder. We need more access to empirically-validated treatments in Louisville. Key words here are empirically-validated treatments. We need to be careful about recruiting an eating disorder center to our community. Treatment centers vary in the quality of treatment provided. I can say from experience (and from research) that there is often a huge gap in the type of treatment that is provided and the type of treatment that *could* be provided. We need a treatment center in Louisville, but we need more than a ‘status quo’ treatment center that will provide sub-optimal care.
More funding for research is needed. Figures from the National Institute of Health show a huge discrepancy in the funding allocated to eating disorders versus other mental and physical health problems given the societal and personal costs. In plain language, research in the eating disorders is extremely underfunded. I am in the process of applying for three national grants. Two from NEDA and one from the National Institute of Health that would establish UofL as the primary site in a network of seven treatment development centers. In my opinion (which is of course, obviously biased) these grants hold the power to transform eating disorder treatment. Unfortunately, the stark reality is that the likelihood of receiving these grants are low, not because they shouldn’t be funded, but because there are not enough research dollars.
I do not see either of these issues as separable. The ideal treatment center is grounded in research and good research that has real impact is grounded in actual treatment. We stand at the cusp of an opportunity to create a world-renowned, state of the art, treatment, research, and training facility right here in Louisville that will provide treatment, development of novel treatments, and training, that our state (and nation) desperately needs. We are working hard at UofL and at the Behavioral Wellness Clinic to make these goals happen, but the more support, both financial and physical we receive, (which can only happen through awareness) the faster we can make this a reality, so that we can decrease the extreme amount of suffering and impairment that eating disorders cause.