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Why feminism can help resolve the unspoken issue of eating disorders among men

While men aren’t always on the harsher end of body image criticism, they can still be susceptible to the pressures created by patriarchy

Andrea Carlo
Sunday 30 September 2018 12:53
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Model Iskra Lawrence explains why people struggle with body image

It is undeniable that women suffer greater societal pressures than men when it comes to body image and appearance, largely as a result of a misogynistic mentality permeating popular culture.

Women are consistently scrutinised for their weight, clothing choices, and other aspects of their everyday life. This even more disproportionately affects women of colour and LGBTQ+ women, who find themselves at the crossroads of various forms of institutional prejudice – noticeable in the ways in which black women are chastised for their natural hairstyles, or transgender students have to fight to wear the clothing of their preference for school prom.

Jameela Jamil talks about being body shamed at the gym

In light of society’s obsession and control of the female body, the gender demographics of eating disorders come as no surprise. Around 1.6 million Brits are believed to suffer from an eating disorder, namely bulimia and anorexia nervosa, and the majority are female.

By contrast, up to 25 per cent of sufferers are estimated to be male. This number, nevertheless, has been growing since 2000. This shows that, as much as they are comparatively a minority, men are increasingly suffering from illnesses which have traditionally been associated with women, and for many of the same reasons. A great deal of these men are still unwilling to speak out about their eating disorders – but if the problem of male eating disorders remains unspoken, these numbers may continue to increase.

A quick glance at the “I Weigh” Instagram page – run by British actress Jameela Jamil with the aim of focusing on body positivity and fighting the unreasonable aesthetic standards placed upon women – shows how numerous women have opened up about their lives and insecurities. But when it comes to men, there is a glaring absence of candour. This is not a surprise. Dr Nina Savelle-Rocklin, an American psychoanalyst, notes how much of the silence from men on eating disorders is born from a fear of expressing emotions and a desire to conform to a “macho” stereotype. Patriarchal values fundamentally render men afraid to appear sensitive or “feminine”.

But as the causes for eating disorders increasingly affect all genders, it is important that we have a conversation about men and such illnesses, namely how the misogyny-induced self-loathing that typically affects women also serves to keep men in silence. The whole matter made me reflect on my own experience of rapid weight gain and an even greater subsequent loss. I never reached the point of developing an eating disorder, but the last few years have shown me just how easy it would have been, and how difficult it would’ve been for me to talk about it.

Three years ago, during A-Levels, I found myself at the end of a cycle of stress. Eating had become a kind of refuge, and within a few months, I rapidly gained weight. I’d always been thin since my childhood, and daily exercise had contributed to the fact that I never thought about what I had to eat. By the end of my exams, this had changed.

Even though my BMI only put me on the borderline between “normal” and “overweight”, the gain was clear; my skinny frame was no longer, and the “exam handles” (as I liked to call them) of an added 7 kilos were visible.

What struck me the most, however, was that upon going back on holiday to my home country, Italy, where “body positivity” is a largely non-existent concept and anorexia is a silent killer, I had suddenly become the sum of my gained weight. Rather than focusing on the fact that I’d gotten into Oxford and had done well in my exams, the first reaction of many people was to comment on the change in my appearance.

Nevertheless, within the next year, further academic stress led to an opposite reaction – not only did I quickly lose the weight I’d gained, but I was skinnier than before. Although the cause for losing 10 kilos in less than three months hadn’t been an aesthetic one, hearing compliments on my new physique and being able to fit in old clothes led to a preoccupation with maintaining my newfound appearance.

Suddenly my approach to food had changed, and I was taken over by an overarching fear of returning to the state of before, where my weight mattered more than my achievements, and where I’d tasted a glimpse of what it was like to face the constant scrutiny which women endure on a daily basis. Calories would be counted before every meal and the weighing scale used at least twice daily, monitoring any changes. It was only when I read an article about how these could be the early signs of anorexia that I re-questioned my approach to weight, and now I’m glad to say that I’m much more balanced and sensible on the matter.

In a sense, I too had been affected by social expectations – more often in men, this results in abusing steroids in order to enhance a muscular appearance, once again attempting to fit the over-exaggerated sexual dimorphism which a patriarchal society imposes. The reality is that while men may be less harshly criticised for their body image than women, they too can still be susceptible to the pressures which a patriarchal society has created.

But what my experience made me realise was that the slippery slope into an eating disorder can ultimately affect anyone, and that I was in no way immune to it. Sexist body standards can exacerbate issues for women more than men, but ultimately, the causes of eating disorders are universal: factors such as anxiety, stress, depression, trauma, or past abuse are all potential triggers. Yet, I sometimes question myself – if I had ever ended up becoming anorexic, would I have had the courage to speak out about it? To this day, I’m still unsure.

As such, this leads me directly to the second premise of this article – feminism is necessary not only for the liberation of women from the ridiculous body standards which a sexist society has imposed on them, but also to allow men who suffer from the collateral damage of such misogyny to speak up more candidly about their issues. As long as we stigmatise men with eating disorders as “weak” or “feminine”, or keep them from opening up about mental health issues which are often at the root of anorexia or bulimia, we will continue to allow the oppression of women while simultaneously letting these illnesses eat men up from the inside.

If you have been affected by this article, you can contact the following organisations for support:

mind.org.uk

beateatingdisorders.org.uk

nhs.uk/livewell/mentalhealth

mentalhealth.org.uk

samaritans.org

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