The Australian model and television personality Rebecca Judd blasted the media on October 30 for causing body image disorders. Her website crashed after she shared her blog, “OMG You Eat?,” with her 53,000 Facebook followers. “When was the last time you ‘worried’ that a thin man had an eating disorder or that he was being a bad role model?" Judd wrote. "That’s right, you didn’t.”
But shouldn’t we worry about men having eating disorders?
Maybe we should ask that question to Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Russell Brand, or Uri Geller; all are Hollywood celebrities who have been open about their battle with eating disorders. Ron Saxen, a model who worked in television, wrote The Good Eater, which details his struggle with Binge Eating Disorder. Fashion model Jeremy Gillitzer lost his battle with anorexia in 2010.
In my practice, women take an average of two years to recover, while men often recover within six months.
While people may think eating disorders are the domain of women, a 2007 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 15 percent of high school girls and 11 percent of high school boys had eating disorder symptoms severe enough to warrant clinical evaluation. Several large-scale studies show a dramatic increase in men’s dissatisfaction with their bodies, from 15 percent to 43 percent in the past few decades.
Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. While many women are concerned about being thin at any cost, men are more concerned with body shape, function, and strength. Research has documented an increase in the sexual objectification of men. Men are also less likely to seek professional help for their eating disorders.
I am a Ph.D.-trained licensed counselor who has treated eating disorders for 29 years, with 13 of those as the director of an outpatient clinic. From my experience, the incidence of men with eating disorders is rising. Unfortunately, many of the same people, including medical professionals, who recognize the problem for women do not see it in men. While women may feel ashamed of their eating disorders, men struggling with eating disorders are even more stigmatized because they have what they often believe is considered a women’s illness.
From my experience, eating disorders can quickly become serious for men. I once saw a 14-year-old boy whose pediatrician identified his anorexia and referred him for treatment. Because he reported dizziness, I asked his mother to get him to a cardiologist. She was able to get an appointment the next day. The cardiologist checked him out and sent him home; the next morning, his mom was unable to wake him. The boy was rushed to a hospital, and the cardiologist who specialized in eating disorders later told me that when he slept, his heart rate wandered into the teens. He recovered fully, but he nearly lost his life to anorexia.
The good news for men is that they tend to get better faster than women. In my practice, women take an average of two years to recover, while men often recover within six months. Of course, men only recover if friends and loved ones help identify the problem, and if men take responsibility and stick with a treatment plan.
There are some encouraging signs of progress. The DSM-V, the diagnostic manual that defines mental illnesses, came out in 2013. Unlike previous editions, this one was extensively field-tested, and the parts of the definition that made it impossible for men to be diagnosed were removed—a big step forward for men suffering with eating disorders.
Eating disorders are the mental illness with the highest mortality rate, claiming up to 20 percent of those who suffer. They are a medical condition, and, like any medical condition, easier to treat if caught early.
Eating disorders are bio-psycho-social, which means they have biological, psychological, and social causes that affect women and men. We need to stop seeing eating disorders as just a women’s illness.
We can start by reaching out to the men we care about.