The hidden problem of male anorexia
Male eating disorders are on the rise and ignorance about them only exacerbates the issues
Caleb Followill: the Kings of Leon frontman would do press-ups until he collapsed and put on a heavy tracksuit in hot weather to run until he fainted. Photograph: Getty Images
There has been an “exponential increase” in the number of Irish men presenting with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia in the past five years, according to a leading consultant.
Dr John Griffin ran the eating disorder unit in St Patrick’s Hospital, Dublin, before becoming a consultant at the Charlemont Clinic. The difference between male and female anorexia and bulimia is that men do not and will not seek help for what is still dangerously and inaccurately thought to be a “woman’s disease”.
The reasons for this dramatic rise in men (as young as 10 and as old as 75) experiencing distress about their body image include the rise in a gym culture; the amount of activity now being conducted over social media sites where one’s physical appearance/
weight frequently attracts viciously cruel comment; the growth in online dating where personality can come second to how you appear in your profile picture; the massive increase in “selfies”; premiership footballers and other professional sports stars being held up as role models; and the simple fact that men now feel they need to look a certain way physically in order to compete, whether in the workplace or in relationships.
“This is something I’ve been trying to draw attention to for 30 years,” says Dr Griffin. “The figure that is routinely given out is that only 10 per cent of all anorexia cases are male, but this is based on data from the 1970s.
“I would put that figure now at one in three. And the worrying trend here is that while previously – in the pre-internet age – the youngest age people, both male and female, would present with anorexia or bulimia would have been aged 15-17, now we’re seeing 10 and 11 year olds presenting.
“And the real difficulty with men here is the shame and guilt associated with these disorders – that these are things that ‘happen only to girls’.”
It can only help that a number of high-profile male anorexics are now talking publicly about their struggle. Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill gave heart to many when the rock ‘n’ roll musician spoke about how his obsession with losing weight while in his late teens led to anorexia.
“I always thought I wasn’t good enough,” he said. Followill would do press-ups until he collapsed and put on a heavy tracksuit in hot weather to run until he fainted because he thought he was fat.
He says he now has his dramatic weight fluctuations under control – even saying he would like to add a bit more weight.
Stephen (not his real name), now 24, like many young Irish men uses Facebook and Twitter to stay in touch with his friends online.
“Three years ago, I posted a picture of me on holiday in Spain,” he says. “A Facebook friend – and I know Facebook friends are different to real friends – commented underneath about how the Michelin Man had landed on a beach in Spain or something like that.
“I just thought it was a stupid thing to say until a few weeks later when a relative on holidays back here from Australia referred to me as having ‘filled out’. I had always played sports at school and never gave a second thought to my weight but the drinking culture when I started college and the fast food you tend to live on at that age had made me bigger.”
Work off the weight
Never the most confident young man around – especially with women his own age – Stephen decided to work off the weight. “I’d go to the gym early in the morning and then again after college and take my bike out for hours and hours.”
A series of physical stresses and strains on his body due to the obsessive amount of exercise he was taking led Stephen to his GP on three different occasions over one month.
“He’d tell me to ease off the exercise for a bit to let my body heal but I didn’t. Every day was a battle to lose weight. I think on my third visit he must have picked up something from me because he started talking about my body mass index being very low and I just burst into tears and told him about what I had been called online. He sent me on to a professional and I’m doing much better now.
“Whereas before I felt like I had to work the weight off the very next day after a few drinks or whatever, now I have some perspective and see things more on a month-to-month basis.
“I still exercise – gym and bike – but not to lose weight, because I enjoy it and I feel good about myself.”
The fact Stephen’s weight distress had to be coaxed out of him by a sympathetic GP is typical, according to Dr Griffin.
“Just one casual remark about a person’s weight can be very damaging,” he says. “And with social media sites, these remarks are happening all the time.”
Dr Gillian Moore Groarke is a consultant psychologist in Cork with specialised knowledge of male anorexia/body image distress.
“It can be dating for the first time, it can be the huge influence of social media but men are now experiencing the same sort of pressure women have always felt in terms of appearance,” she says.
“There can be a lot of issues with an anorexic patient and you can’t ignore the complex background triggers, whether male or female, but it’s the total lack of sensitivity among young men that is rising.
“Young men speaking among themselves are far more likely to pass comment on each other’s weight – and not in a healthy way.” Whatever about children saying the cruellest things, the adolescent male in the company of other adolescent males can be vicious beyond belief.
Psychotherapist Marie Campion runs the Marino Clinic in Clontarf, Dublin, and is an expert on what she refers to as “eating distress”.
“People grow up in families thinking that this is a female issue – it’s not. That just adds to the shame and the horrible sense of isolation felt by men experiencing this issue – that somehow they have a ‘sissy’ problem.
“I’m talking about handsome young men, very talented, but suffering from stigma because of this. I want to scream when I hear that figure – that only 10 per cent of all eating distress cases are male – because it’s nowhere near the truth, and particularly these days.
“There is a big gender difference for the exact same form of eating distress – for women it’s seen as being acceptable, for men it’s not. That’s wrong, very wrong.”
Bodywhys (bodywhys.ie) is the eating disorder association of Ireland. It points to the fact that there has been a 67 per cent increase in the number of men being treated for eating disorders in the UK in the past five years.
Such a rise, one can assume, has occurred in this country too.
This is a problem that is not going away and the ignorance around male anorexia/bulimia only exacerbates the problem.
As all the professionals talked to above attest, do not fear that if you seek help that you will be the first male to do so and are somehow of a “novelty value”. Many men have gone before you.