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The problems with the underrepresentation of male eating disorders

Aug. 9, 2017
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Eating disorders are credited as one of the deadliest mental illnesses, with 20% of those suffering with Anorexia Nervosa dying from their illness if they do not receive treatment. With the recent release of the new Netflix film To the Bone, starring Lily Collins, eating disorders have once again been brought to light in conversation and media. To the Bone touches on the story of a character who represents what is seen most often in media depicting eating disorders: a young, white woman. The film has its supporters and critics, but overall, the story shown is a story that we see time and time again, with a character that stands as the “norm” for what types of people end up with eating disorders.   

Over the past three years of my life, I have been able to see the realm of eating disorders from a variety of different sides. First, as someone who has suffered with an eating disorder, I have seen treatment, care, and the recovery process firsthand. Next, I have been working with the nonprofit ProjectHeal since 2015, helping to run their social media and volunteering at the annual gala that raises funds for the treatment of eating disorders. And finally, I spent the entirety of my senior year of high school studying one of the most underrepresented groups of eating disorder sufferers: men.

As far as ratios and statistics go, in the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. These disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or EDNOS. Obviously, there is a gap between the number of women and the the number of men who develop an eating disorder within the course of their lifetime, yet the focus of media dedicated to eating disorders, treatment, and recovery seems to strictly be about women, often leaving men out of the equation entirely. 

Very few studies, if any, are conducted on males in regards to eating disorders. This could be contributed to the fact that women are often more likely to report symptoms of eating disorders, causing the number of men reported to have an eating disorder to be underestimated, hence, misrepresented. 

This isn’t to say that there aren’t other groups that are marginalized when it comes to representation the eating disorder community. Women of color, specifically African-American and Hispanic women, have been studied and observed in their treatment process far less than many of their white female counterparts. For my project, I chose men to be my focus simply because—as someone who works in the eating disorder community—I’m often faced head-on with the lack of male eating disorder representation.

My aim was to measure the correlation between what adolescent boys view on social media platforms and how that changes their self-perception. I placed the boys in the study on a Likert Scale from 1-5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest, to rate their initial self-image and their image after they viewed photos of celebrities of a various body types (from fit to out of shape). In my study, there was an overwhelming trend showing that the boys found themselves significantly less attractive after viewing photos of men that demonstrated some kind of “ideal male body type”—such as having visibly defined muscles or a lack of body fat. Their personal self-image increased when they felt as if they looked better than the men in the photos, as they felt it meant they were in much better shape than the person they were being shown. Studies on female participants have shown that these tendencies toward dissatisfaction with one’s own body can lead to eating disorders and other mental illness, such as depression or suicidal behavior. 

The problem with all of this is that the consequences of media impact on self-image, while commonly discussed with regards to the female population, are rarely ever discussed in connection with men and boys. Rarely are there ever documentaries or films depicting a male lead struggling with an eating disorder, and often when they are shown in films, the character is trivialized or included simply as a foil for the white female lead. Males shown in treatment centers often only serve as a love interest for the protagonist or other characters, becoming objectified for their gender and not part of the focus for the disorder they possess. 

We cannot have boys and men in movies about eating disorders continue to be used as props or sidekicks for female characters whose likenesses have already been well represented in films about the illness. The current projections show that male eating disorders are on the rise, and this upward trend is expected to continue in the years to come. If this is true, the continued underrepresentation of male sufferers in eating disorder media will only further the disconnect between men or boys who have eating disorders and their ability to be understood by the general public.

No one deserves to feel as if they are alone in their journey towards recovery.

Everyone deserves to have their story brought to the light.