As a culture, we tend to associate eating disorders with women. If you Google “anorexia,” most of the images returned are of women. Movies about eating disorders include titles like Kate’s Secret, The Karen Carpenter Story, The Best Little Girl in the World, and For the Love of Nancy. Even the anorexia Wikipedia page features an image of a woman, “Miss A,” who was the subject of one the first medical case studies of the disorder. However, while it is true that women are more frequently affected by eating disorders, it is also true that many men have unhealthy relationships with food—and studies suggest that we’re more afraid to seek help than woman are.
This certainly reflects my own experience. My default response to anxiety goes something like, “It’s not worth bothering anybody else about this,” or, “It’s not actually a big deal.” After all, I can function with anxiety. In fact, I can get through most days without paying any attention at all to how I’m feeling. There’s plenty to occupy me: work, friends, family, the next episode of House of Cards. But I can’t pretend that eating a chocolate bar, or a carton of ice cream, is a guilt-free experience. And I can’t pretend that I don’t compare my body to an ideal male body type each time I look in the mirror. And the fact that I don’t have to tell you what this ideal body type looks like means that you probably do, too. For example, I bet you know exactly what every Men’s Health cover models’ torsos look like even if you’ve never read Men’s Health.
What I’m trying to point out here is that there is a difference between not experiencing anxiety and not acknowledging—even just to yourself—that you are experiencing anxiety. If you’re like me, the ways in which you resist acknowledging your own experience can actually make that anxiety invisible, and therefore impossible to address.
As a consequence, we as men need to develop tools for reflecting on our relationships with food and our bodies. Something that helps me is to leave aside terms that are familiar, but that I rarely see as relevant to me, such as anorexia, binge eating disorder, and purging. Instead, it helps to simply describe our experiences as honestly as we can. Here are some initial questions you might ask:
- Do you feel guilty or out of control while eating?
- Do you often eat large quantities of food in a short time?
- How rigorously monitor your food intake?
- Do you feel dissatisfied or anxious about your body?
- How often do you eat when not hungry, or until uncomfortably full?
- How frequently do you perform body checks (using a scale, examining yourself in the mirror, pinching a part of your body that you are dissatisfied with)?
- Do you ever use laxatives or diuretics to assist with weigh loss or maintenance?
If some of the above describe your relationship to food and your body, rest assured you’re not alone. According to an Institute for the Psychology of Eating fact sheet, a recent study found that at least 20% of teenage males experience anxiety about their bodies. Another study concluded that “while more women are impacted by body image concerns, men likely feel more shame around discussing it.” This is no small issue: mental health and nutrition professionals have noted that eating disorders help create the conditions in which suicides occur, and males, perhaps because they are less likely to seek help when they need it, commit suicide nearly four times as often as woman in the United States.
Many men I know—myself included—like to think that we can handle challenges by ourselves. The idea that we need to speak to somebody about something as fundamental as how we eat is more than just discouraging: it suggests that we have failed as men. But a more practical way to think about our relationships with food and body image is to ask if we have all the tools we need to monitor and respond to our experiences. If we struggle, perhaps we need more tools.
Luckily, there are plenty of resources here at UNH. We can speak with one of UNH’s Eating Concerns Mentors—students trained to provide information and support for peers struggling with food. We might also contact UNH’s Nutrition Educator, Maria Caplan, who says she works to “better [students’] relationship with food.” The UNH Counseling Center also has extensive experience working with students concerned about their bodies and their eating.
It is important for all men to think about how they eat because, unlike nearly everything else, eating is something that every single man does. But reflection isn’t enough: we must acknowledge that there are some things we need help with—and speak up about them.