Male eating disorders

Men get eating disorders, too. A British organization by the same name has a website and Twitter account by the same name. Eating disorders information can be found at the website for the National Institute of Mental Health, and also on the website for information on women's health. It implies that eating disorders are just a women's issue.

As the Kartini Clinic blog pointed out last week, one of the very first medical descriptions of anorexia was of an adolescent male. In 1689, believe it or not. So the idea that eating disorders are "just" women's issues is actually quite wrong.

The problem is that after Richard Morton first described anorexia in 1688, later medical doctors lumped anorexia in with "hysteria." Hysteria is derived from the Greek word for the uterus (which is why you get a hysterectomy), which means that men automatically can't be "hysterical" in the nineteenth century, technical usage of the word. Which is where we started to go wrong.

Later conceptualizations of eating disorders continued to exclude men, because eating disorders were seen as a female over-concern with one's looks, or a diet gone wrong. Men, it seemed, didn't face these pressures and/or were too smart to fetishize the size of their asses. Since men didn't face the body image pressures that women did, men couldn't get eating disorders.

It's bollocks, by the way. If you're human, you can get an eating disorder.

I'm blogging about this not just because I've been reading stuff about eating disorders in males, but also because I got a press release emailed to me this morning about a symposium on male eating disorders at the 2012 IAEDP conference this spring.  The tag line was:

Our latest news shares the sad and startling fact that one in three men are willing to shorten their lifespan just for the sake of better meeting society's image of the "ideal" man.


I mean, there are just so many things wrong with this. First of all, eating disorders have existed long before current body ideals evolved, so that can't be the cause. Second, an eating disorder isn't being "willing to shorten your lifespan." That's like saying someone is willing to develop cancer so they can lose weight from chemo. Eating disorders aren't choices. They aren't about vanity or looks. They're a real biologically-based illness that kills, not because vain and vapid people of all sexes and genders are too self-absorbed to stop harming themselves, but because they have an illness that we generally suck at treating.

Also, I'm not sure of the scientific validity of a hypothetical "would you rather" question in assessing body image issues or eating disorders in any population. Nor are people with eating disorders actually making these decisions. Like I said, it's an illness, you idiots.

Of course, what I got was a press release and promo information. I don't know exactly what the presentation is going to contain. The email I got did say that they were also premiering a male-specific eating disorders assessment, which could be a very good thing. I haven't seen it, so I can't say for sure.

It's just that perpetuating these myths about what causes eating disorders doesn't do anyone any good in the long run. Yes, issues of eating disorders in males does need more attention, but could we at least get the facts right first?


Dr. K@ said...

Great post!
I completely agree, it's so annoying to continue to feel like Eating Disorders are treated like a pseudo-science, and silly reasons for their existence continue to crop up. It's especially sad to see it going on in the medical community, where you'd think people would actually realize there's a biological and pathophysiological basis for the disease; and it IS a disease! It's so sad, because until EDs are granted passage into the halls of "true" disease, they will continue to be brushed off as "silly" conditions where the individuals just need to eat more...

Thanks for sharing that, enlightening and informative as always :)

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hm said...

Well said- really, really not about being willing to shorten one's lifespan for the sake of one's looks. Really not. It's about feeling like one doesn't have a choice.

I do hope that as science gives us more data about these illnesses, the stigma and shame associated with them will decrease.

Go, science!

Extra Long Tail said...


Thank you for not only pointing out the importance of recognising that men get eating disorders (EDs), but also that EDs are NOT 'about' vanity and are NOT a cultural construct.

EDs are not 'about' anything in our culture. They are biologically-based and involve the brain. It is merely that we attach 'meanings' to our behaviours that relate to the culture in which we live and the experiences we have had in our lives.

Here's an analogy. Lets say that someone with psychosis believes that people they see on TV are addressing them personally via secret messages. Would this person's psychiatrist believe that their illness is 'about' the TV and blame TV for causing psychosis? I think not.

Katie said...

Great post :) It annoys me so much when the media treat male EDs like a new phenomenon. It's inaccurate and unhelpful! Not that the media ever really worried about being inaccurate or unhelpful...

Margarita said...

Carrie, this is an awesome post! You always do such a great job at busting ridiculous myths about eating disorders.

I got the same press release and actually kept it unread so I could respond to it. I was really taken aback by the wording, too! Especially because we're talking about an ED organization for professionals. How was it allowed to released??

Saying that men are willing to shorten their life span for some societal ideal makes it seem like EDs are an unfortunate choice, some bad decision --- instead of the serious illnesses that they are.

I love your point that if you're human, you're vulnerable to an ED. EDs don't discriminate and they're not some new phenomenon either.

Thanks for a great post!

Carrie Arnold said...


You're absolutely right in stating that it was the wording and not the subject matter that was the issue.

It makes me cringe that after all this time, even ED professionals (!) are equating EDs with a vanity issue. Sigh.

Karen Barber said...

Hi Carrie, the Scientist. Thank you for writing about "male eating disorders". The more we talk about this, the less suffering their will be.

As you know I have been a follower for quite a while.

I did a post on my blog where you were mentioned. Thought you would like to see:

Have a great scientific and lovely day.



Anonymous said...


Male recovering from AN :(

Becky said...

Well said as usual Carrie! Thank you for taking us back to the 1600's to see some history of male eating disorders and the illnesses in general. I am shocked as well to see something coming out of the IADEP Conference that so blatantly suggests that people choose eating disorders. We have so much to learn about these illnesses.

Keep up the great work and sharing the science behind these deadly illnesses Carrie! I'm glad you took the time to share your wisdom.
Becky Henry
Hope Network, LLC

Daniel said...

As a male recovering from anorexia, I agree that it's incredibly irritating to search for advice and assistance online only to come up with hundreds of results directed toward women and only women. Hell, I just rented my exercise/physiology textbook from the campus book rental and the only things they mention about the disease is that it's common in female athletes and what to look for.

I really feel we need to eliminate the social desire to have such an "ideal" body and learn to accept what is actually natural. Thanks for sharing this, hopefully it'll help get the message out more. :)

j.m.r. said...

I'm proof positive. Thanks for posting.

HikerRD said...

Well, if I do make it to the conference, that's a session I think I'll be skipping--it's concerning that such a reputable organization can put this out as a promotion!

For the record, at present I have about 7 males with eating disorders in my caseload. None chose it, just as the females I see didn't opt to live with an eating disorder. Hopping from primary MD, to RD, to therapist to psychiatrist appointments is no one's idea of a good time.

Anonymous said...

Great post, it may be helpful however to specify that it is only anorexia that has been shown to be a "biologically based illness" - not other types of eating disorders. Thanks

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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