Anorexia - now it's Nineties man who suffers

Males confused over their role in society are contracting the 'woman's disease'. Roger Dobson reports
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The Independent Online
Young men are increasingly falling victim to anorexia and bulimia - and confusion over male roles in the age of the New Man is being blamed.

The new wave of glossy magazines for men and the promotion of the "heroin- look" of super-thin male physiques, are also partly responsible, according to psychologists who are seeing twice as many male patients as 20 years ago.

And even those figures under-represent the problem, with men much less likely to seek help than women because eating disorders are still seen as an exclusively female problem. The Eating Disorders Association estimates that one in 10 people with eating disorders is male.

Social and cultural influences are crucial in the development of the disorders and need to be studied more, according to research presented to a British Psychological Conference. Later this year the European Council on Eating Disorders conference will probe the effects of the cultural changes on men.

"If a young man of 17, 18 or 19 in the 1970s could pass his A-levels, decide on a career and get accepted by his college of choice, he had done all that was required of him and everyone was happy," says Dr Jill Welbourne, a leading specialist who runs Bristol Royal Infirmary's eating disorders clinic.

"Now chaps have to be emotionally competent, change nappies and so on, and things are not so clear as they were. There is role confusion value conflict and that is a trigger for anorexia."

Traditionally, men have lost weight in order to be fit, while women have strived to lose weight more to be simply thin.

"Women read glossy magazines where images of thinness are portrayed, and there is evidence that the more you are surrounded by pictures like that the more unhappy you are with yourself," says Dr Welbourne. "Until recently, men have not had that kind of literature."

One of the effects of anorexia among women is that they stop menstruating. A similar hormonal effect in men is not talked about - hormone disturbance in men switches off the capacity to perform sexually.

Psychologist Dr Pat Hartley, honorary research fellow at Manchester University and director of the Merseyside eating disorder service, says there is no doubt that anorexia and bulimia among men is increasing.

"When I first started there were 18 females with eating disorders to every male, but now it is probably 10 to one and there are a lot more men out there not coming forward because eating disorder is associated with women," she says.

Dr Hartley believes that particular people are at risk. "If you have the sort of personality that is perfectionist with low self-esteem, then the individual will be more receptive to whatever cultural idea is being promoted.

"For men now there is conflict between the need to be strong, the macho image and the need to be the caring, Nineties man. Role conflict is very important in the search for identity.

"The fashion magazines seem to be using gaunt, ethereal looking men now just as they have been using women for years."