That we are living in times of increasing emotional stress may be one explanation for figures suggesting that the proportion of men and women needing hospital treatment for eating disorders in the UK has risen steeply in recent years.
Anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders are often seen as affecting young girls and women but people of both genders and all ages are affected.
Self-image is one of the major contributors to eating disorders in the young
Of those admitted to Irish psychiatric units with eating disorders in 2015, by far the largest proportion (87 per cent) was female. But the 13 per cent of men whose condition was serious enough to warrant admission are the ones we don’t think of.
Self-image is one of the major contributors to eating disorders in the young. According to research summarised on the website of Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, as many as 43 per cent of young people, mainly girls, are dissatisfied with their bodies.
Self-criticism and shame are features of eating disorders and in this context I was interested to see that late-maturing boys and early-maturing girls have higher levels of eating disorders than their peers.
An early-maturing girl has at least matured in the same direction in which her peers are going. It strikes me that a late-maturing boy is in a worse position because his peers are ahead of him and so he is lagging behind. He does not fit in with the more macho aspects of male identity.
These boys and girls may very well have experienced hurtful comments from their peers and that may induce a sense of shame. Indeed, among boys bullying is the most negative influence on their body image and among girls it is comparison with others.
But early or late maturing are not the only factors involved in the development of eating disorders. Some experts suggest social media increases pressures on people of all ages both in regard to one’s appearance and to many other factors.
These pressures can result in self-criticism that can be so harsh it constitutes an attack on the self, almost a form of self-harm. Again one can see how this may be a factor in eating disorders which sometimes cause serious physical harm and even death.
Anything from 10-25 per cent of eating disorders may be in men
Eating disorders can be found among people of all ages but in men the average age would appear to be around the mid-20s. Up to a quarter of boys with eating disorders may have acquired the condition by the age of 17.
Eating disorders are very often hidden and for that reason it is hard to say how much men contribute to the overall prevalence of these conditions.
Anything from 10-25 per cent of eating disorders may be in men. Binge eating, on the other hand, may be equally divided between the sexes.
One small-scale study with men found it can take months or years for a man to realise he has an eating disorder – he may only find out when his health deteriorates.
Figures on mortality from eating disorders are more easily available for women than for men. Both the mortality from the effects of the disorder and from suicide are higher than in the general population. An eating disorder can also become a long-term condition.
Self-harming is also a feature of eating disorders among men and women. Men have reported that the eating disorder and the self-harming developed together.
Self-harming may control painful emotions, for instance by replacing emotional pain with physical pain. It can also, of course, be an expression of self-hatred, which brings us back to the question of shame and extreme self-criticism.
Eating disorders are very complex as anybody who has had a son or daughter with anorexia will know
Addressing that shame and self-criticism is an important aspect of working with people who have eating disorders. But eating disorders are very complex as anybody who has had a son or daughter with anorexia will know.
Anybody setting out to tackle this condition on behalf of themselves or somebody else can make a good start by reading the Bodywhys website at bodywhys.ie
Padraig O'Morain (email@example.com) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.