There is a general misconception that eating disorders only affect women.  The reality is that a significant number of males are also enduring abnormal eating habits today. Ian Begley investigates.

It is estimated that about 10% of people who suffer from anorexia and bulimia are male, but recent studies suggest that this figure could be as high as 25%.

Cases of binge eating disorders are in fact a lot more equally divided, with up to 50% of reported cases occurring in males, and in total affecting up to 2% of the Irish population.

In recent years there has been a substantial increase in the number of males who have contacted help agencies admitting to some sort of abnormal eating habit.

John Bradley, a psychotherapist who has been working with people with eating disorders for over 20 years says that the rising numbers of male cases is a clear indication that this condition is not solely a “female issue”.

“It is very important for people to understand that men aren’t exempt from any form of anorexia or bulimia. We see a lot of males who have excessively changed their diet to achieve an unrealistic sense of beauty,” said Mr Bradley.

Mr Bradley also admits that men are often too embarrassed or self-conscious to seek professional help, and blames the media for convincing young men that the only way to succeed in life is to attain a muscular body or a slim, attractive figure.

“Many of the men who I’ve been in touch with believe there is a social stigma about being a male with an eating disorder, and fear they will face ridicule from their peers and family if they choose to seek help. More men today are eating more and working out excessively to achieve the typical body builder or slim athletic physique. This can cause serious damage to their health as many men tend to take dangerous amounts of performing enhancing drugs to bulk up,” stated Mr. Bradley.

It is very important for people to understand that men aren’t exempt from any form of anorexia or bulimia.

Eating disorders are usually triggered by emotional stress, depression or low self-esteem.  Compared with women, eating disorders may be somewhat different in men. Women primarily strive for a slim figure, while men often focus on over-exercising or building muscle mass. This obsession is known as Muscle Dysmorphia.

A job or profession that demands thinness or large, muscular bodies put male models, actors and entertainers are at higher risk of developing an eating disorder than the general population.

The misconception that eating disorders affect only women can lead to many men disregarding any abnormal eating habits they believe they have, thus making them unlikely to seek support or guidance.

According to the National Association of Anorexic Nervosa and Associated Disorders, gay and bi-sexual men are at a greater risk of developing eating disorders. Pressure to look physically attractive within the gay community often leads to gay and bisexual men purging or starving themselves in the search for physical perfection.

Michael Devitt, a peer worker with LGBT youth group Outreach, states that many young males in the gay community feel the need to obsess over their appearances, and often take extreme measures to ensure external perfection.

tumblr_m8fdzzCca51rdp3juo1_500“It’s quite disheartening to see so many teens and young adults talk about nothing but their weight and appearances.  It does seem prevalent that many young men in the gay community worry too much about the way they look.  If we suspect anyone here of having an eating disorder we will of course guide them in the right direction,” stated Mr Devitt.

There is now a growing concern over the surge of pro-anorexic and bulimic sites sprouting up across the web. These websites openly endorse anorexic behaviour to young people and create misconceptions that attempt to justify eating disorders.

Many of these sites are forum based and provide their readers and members with tips on why and how they should maintain and nurture their eating disorders. Angelfire.com lists off 40 reasons why their viewers “should starve today”: “You will be Fat if you eat today; You don’t NEED food; People will remember you as the ‘beautifully thin’ one.”

Out of the 21 pro-anorexic and bulimic sites I found, nine were either run by males or had male-specific sections. Six used the social networking and blogging site Tumblr to post huge quantities of pictures of men whom they felt emulated their notion of idealised beauty. These photographs primarily featured male models that were either extremely skinny or excessively muscular. Several images had motivational captains over them with bizarre messages like: “Reason to lose weight #521: So people will say, ‘Wow he’s so skinny’” and “I didn’t eat for three days so I could be lovely.”

Another pro-anorexic blog I came across was called ProAnaBoy.com. The site was run by a 20 year old; openly-gay man named Michael Stone, and featured diary entries about his pro-anorexic life.

“Sick of feeling fat, ugly and useless to society, I am going to be blogging my ana experience, for support, help, tips and for the male POV related to anorexia. I just want to be perfect. I will always support other weight-loss blogs, we have to look after each other [sic],” Michael wrote in one post.

Michael’s blog was very popular amongst fellow pro-anorexic and bulimic males. He received positive feedback from his followers and gave advice and support to those struggling to maintain their abnormal eating habits.

More often than once, the perilous extent of Michael’s anorexia was apparent in his blog entries: “I fucking ate a sandwich. I hate myself,” he wrote.

Two weeks ago my son died from a heart attack brought on by his anorexia battle. He weighed near to 100 pounds.

When Michael failed to post any updates on his website for several weeks, his followers were becoming concerned about his inactivity and demanded a reason for his absence. It was not until October, 2011, that Michael’s mother wrote a message on his website declaring that her son had died from a heart attack due to his battle with anorexia.

“My name is Sharon and I was Michaels mother. 2 weeks ago my son died from a heart attack brought on by his anorexia battle. He weighed near to 100 pounds. I’m sending out this message to all of his ‘followers’ who may be suffering from anorexia. You are KILLING yourself, please seek help now, life is more than the weight you are, and now my son will never know. Michael’s account calls himself “pro ana boy”, if you are “pro ana” I want you to stop, BEFORE IT STOPS YOU [sic],” stated Mrs Stone.

Michael Stone [pictured right] died from a heart attack caused by anorexia

Myproana.com is one of the web’s largest forums for people who are pro-anorexic and bulimic. I set up a false account on this website and was invited to join the private chartroom designated for males with eating disorders.

I observed the transcripts of males as young as 12 talking about how insecure they felt about their bodies and the extent they go to in order to maintain their unhealthy lifestyles. One teenage male who went by the user name of “slimdude16” described his recent experience at an anorexic council group that his parents forced him to attend:

“The place was full chicks and I felt real out of place being the only guy there. I just sat down saying nothing listening to the lady warning everyone about how starving yourself can lead to infertility and all that. The whole thing was a waste of time tbh [sic],” said the teen.

Another user by the name of “TheBlueBoy” explained to the group how he manages to live the ‘anorexic life,’ while still in school.

“For breakfast I eat a hardboiled egg – 92 cals and drink a glass of OJ – 90 cals.  Then I go for a 10km run before school starts. I chew gum all day during class so I dont feel hungry and usually nibble at an apple at lunch which is about 47 cals. At home when my mom makes me dinner I’ll eat what I can and throw out the rest. In total I say I eat no more than 550cals a day.” stated the user.

Combatting the stigma of males with eating disorders is vital to encourage men and teens to seek professional help if they believe they fall under the category of anorexic, bulimic, or binge eater. It is a serious mental illness that originates for many reasons which does not primarily affect women. All types of eating disorders compose of physical, psychological, behavioural and emotional aspects, which can be addressed and treated just as effectively as women with similar eating habits.

If you are concerned about taking the first step towards recovery, the non-judgmental support provided by The Marino Therapy Clinic could be a helpful starting point. A hotline for men is open on Tuesday evenings from 6pm-8pm, Tel: 01 8333603.