What Special Issues Are Faced By Men With Bulimia?
While the actual numbers of men with bulimia are unknown and are certainly less than for women, more men have bulimia than anyone thought in the early 80s, when information about this eating disorder first emerged. Current estimates are that at least 10% of individuals with eating disorders are males. However, much of the latest research on prevalence is based on small studies and lacks conclusive findings. Men can also develop anorexia nervosa; and unlike women, some become obsessed with getting larger and more muscular—a condition called “reverse anorexia” or “body dysmorphia” which can also become addictive.
Considering the issues that surround bulimia, such as guilt, shame, and low self-esteem, it is understandable that men might feel these emotions even more intensely when they have what has been generally regarded as a “women’s” disease. For this reason, many bulimic men may have been reluctant to seek professional help. Those who use exercise addiction as a type of purge generally deny that they have a problem with food. Perfectionistic “low-fat eaters” hide their obsession behind a facade of health and fitness.
For the most part, men appear to become bulimic for the same kinds of reasons that women do. Some male athletes, such as wrestlers, jockeys and gymnasts, use bulimia to maintain or lose weight and become hooked on it, just as is the case for female athletes. Although contemporary thought suggests that more women are bulimic than men because society has traditionally placed more of an emphasis on women’s appearance, men are increasingly encouraged to conform to a narrow range of body types. The gay community, in particular, is concerned with “lookism” and roughly 20% of male bulimics are gay (Andersen, 1999). Heavy male models are as rare as full-figured females, and men are encouraged to diet, undergo plastic surgery and alter their hair just like women.
Men are also under pressure to appear strong, in control, and independent, and as such, their roles in our culture have limitations and drawbacks, just like women’s. Many have difficulty expressing feelings and have had little experience in emotionally intimate relationships. Most feel tremendous pressure to be in charge, to shoulder financial worries and be the foundation for their families and other responsibilities. Few would want to be labelled as obsessed with their appearance. All these situations might make them more susceptible to using bulimia as a coping mechanism, as well as extremely reluctant to seek help.
Most research concludes that there are far more similarities than differences when comparing men and women with bulimia. In addition to our pervasive, cultural diet-consciousness, other factors such as dysfunctional families, sexual abuse, low self-esteem, and lack of meaning in one’s life contribute to the causes for becoming bulimic, regardless of gender. Recovery outcomes for each are also parallel.
Finding adequate therapy has its own unique concerns for men. Treatment options for women are plentiful and diverse, and only in recent years have programs been developed that are available solely for men. Therefore, finding professional support may require a lot of searching and may mean settling for a general men’s or mixed bulimia support group.
Men might find it necessary to step outside the roles they’ve defined for themselves, and to interpret feminist recovery literature to meet their own needs. For instance, one aspect of feminism is valuing relationships between people rather than being separate from them. This might well apply to men who are encouraged to be so independent and competitive that they feel isolated from others and drawn to bulimia.
As a society, both men and women perpetuate negative stereotypes, and it is up to both sexes to learn how to relate to each other in fulfilling, nurturing ways. As you know, the language of this book primarily addresses women, but most of the underlying messages and suggested activities are also worthwhile for men.
Reprinted with permission from Bulimia: A Guide to Recovery
By Lindsey Hall and Leigh Cohn
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