Opinion

Men suffer from eating disorders

'Silent epidemic' notion dangerously misrepresents prevalence among males

It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, so let’s be aware: Males suffer from eating disorders.

Notice how there’s no “also” at the end of the sentence, as if to suggest that there’s some lack of sensitivity toward the male gender. That’s because this isn’t a groundbreaking, narrative-shifting exposé. It isn’t another swing at the trite pro-femme, anti-femme mudslinging that’s been inundating the pages of Pipe Dream for months.

It is a reality unconcerned with the equalization of suffering or the “one point for the males” bullshit that’s somehow become a conventional framework for how we gauge misfortune. That’s why this article won’t address eating disorders in the female population, because it’s irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion.

In the United States, 10 million males will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life.

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) hypothesizes that “traditional masculine ideals are associated with negative attitudes toward seeking psychological help.” This is probably true, but whether this should be taken as bad news for the 10 million sufferers or as indication that the number may be much higher than 10 million is up to you.

What it does undeniably affirm is that a sizable portion of males of various sexualities suffer from a serious eating disorder. NEDA calls it “the silent epidemic,” which I can only assume is to suggest that most people aren’t truly aware of the reach of eating disorders in the male population.

Quantitatively, this may be the case. Few, I’d contend, would estimate the number of male sufferers to be 10 million.

But is the epidemic really silent? Well, among our demographic, there’s a good chance it isn’t. People know that males suffer from eating disorders, and whether or not that awareness is limited to knowledge of the term “manorexia” is irrelevant. Call it what you may — if you know the term “manorexia,” the epidemic isn’t “silent” to you.

But to the victims, it may be. The concept of having an eating disorder can be, to males, outlandish. Sometimes, the actual practice of having an eating disorder can serve a completely different mental purpose than the typical aesthetic purpose with which we associate it.

Athletics commonly serve as this alternative purpose. NEDA estimates that approximately 33 percent of male athletes are affected by eating disorders. They’re most prevalent in sports like wrestling, swimming and gymnastics, where athletes often keep their body fat levels below 3 percent.

The effect of this? Male athletes may suffer from eating disorders but may be unable to identify them because of a cognitive dissonance that prevents the association of their practices with having an “eating disorder.” Typically, male athletes only realize that they qualify as having an eating disorder when confronted about their practices. This applies to non-athletes as well, where the cognitive dissonance still very much exists.

The result is that among males, there is a sizable portion who knowingly suffers from eating disorders, but also a huge portion who unknowingly suffers from them. So, if I may ask, to whom is the epidemic truly silent?

During high school, I unknowingly suffered from serious anorexia nervosa for about a year as a result of participation in athletics. It took me a while to realize it, and even longer to admit it. I am one of 10 million sufferers, but also one of the countless males to whom their eating disorder is entirely silent.

Shh — you hear that? Neither do I.

Views expressed in the opinion pages represent the opinions of the columnists.