Anorexic Men: Where Feminists Fail

Just because only 1 in 10 people with eating disorders are men, doesn’t mean they should receive 10% of the treatment or attention.

  • Brief note: the cover photo is of an “art party” and probably has implications I’m not intending. But at the least it’s interesting. Photo Here

I was visiting a pro-anorexia website a while back (if you don’t know what that is, I don’t recommend looking it up) and I was struck by a pattern that I saw: a large minority of the posters on the site were men. Not just young men, either– there were a number of middle aged men who professed to have anorexia and other disorders. I was taken aback, since I had always known intellectually that men have eating disorders, but I don’t think it dawned on me just how many. It also hadn’t dawned on me that middle aged white men that looked like my uncle could be anorexic.

Most eating disorder spaces are for women, and there’s value in that. There aren’t many spaces that are for women only, and so where they appear, they can provide a unique space for women to be free from the (potential) threat of male influence. For example, no one would dispute the benefit of a female-only rape survivors’ group. But with eating disorders, the picture gets a bit fuzzier. In a world where support groups, both on- and off-line, treatment centers, and even pro-ana websites are comprised mostly of women, where do the men with eating disorders go?

*Mostly I’m talking about 1. men and 2. women and ignoring for a moment the fact that there are plenty of transgender and gender nonbinary people with eating disorders. The reason I’m ignoring this is because there is no research, no visibility, and and no recognition for nonbinary people at the moment, while there is a great deal more dialogue on men and women. So I suppose, when I’m talking about a lack of men in the space and a lack of inclusivity, I’m talking about anyone that is not a woman. Anyways…

At times I have seen the active exclusion of men from eating disorder spaces. There is a lot of stigma around eating disorders in general, and a great deal more for men– men are traditionally expected to be Large, to Eat Heartily, and to not care that much about their physical appearance. Eating disorders mostly contradict all of that, excluding for a moment the prevalence of muscle dysmorphia among men, which carries its own contradictory baggage. In the realm of traditional eating disorders, like anorexia and  bulimia, they are seen as feminine– small bodies, small portions, waifs and personal control. So where men have eating disorders, their masculinity is often in contrast with eating disordered ideals, thus inviting stigma.

I won’t lie– I haven’t paid much attention to men with eating disorders ever before. I suppose I always thought, “So what if men have them too? It’s mostly women that have the disorders, and it’s mostly women that are pressured into losing weight. So shouldn’t we mostly focus on women?” However, there is a glaring problem with this, which I realized, oddly enough, in my exploration of the pro-ana world. Far more men than we realize suffer from eating disorders– they are far less likely to get treatment, due to the stigma I mentioned above, reducing the numbers of apparent sufferers. But there are in fact many, and their suffering is no less significant due to their gender.

I’ve come to believe quite strongly that the exclusion of men, intentional and unintentional, from the world of eating disorders is a failure of feminism rather than a victory. In no way do I mean to suggest that women should receive less attention for their eating disorders– only that men should receive more. What’s happening is that the amount of attention eating disordered men are receiving currently is proportionate to the perceived number of men with eating disorders– but unfortunately, this logic is invalid. Just because only 1 in 10  people with eating disorders are men, doesn’t mean they should receive 10% of the treatment or attention.

And hey, maybe it’s just me that’s always neglected eating disordered men in my mind. But I doubt it, based on treatment rates, and the fact that in online spaces, men are often actively excluded. There is still value in female-only treatment spaces, no doubt, but that does not allow the rejection of men’s treatment needs, which is what seems to be the case. The same must be said, too, of transgender and gender nonbinary people, for whom there is almost no visibility at all. Feminist eating disordered people need to make concerted efforts to recognize the simple fact that all genders suffer from eating disorders, and although there are surely different precipitators for men, women, and everyone else, all are equally deserving of recognition.


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