Fat Is NOT JUST a Feminist Issue, Anymore!

By Leigh Cohn, MAT, CEDS
Coauthor of Making Weight

In recent years, there has been an explosion in the numbers of men with eating disorders, body image conflicts, compulsive exercise, and obesity. Long thought to be "women's issues," these are now actually hidden problems for millions of men. Therapists are seeing 50% more men for evaluation and treatment for eating disorders than ten years ago, and experts believe this number may be the tip of the iceberg.

"Men feel stigmatized about having these 'women's diseases' and have been reluctant to seek help," explains Arnold Andersen, M.D., co-author of Making Weight, the first book on the subject of men's problems with food, weight, shape, and appearance. Men have been ignored because clinicians have not thought of them as having these kinds of problems, and men have been too embarrassed to seek treatment. It's a double-edged sword, but the situation is beginning to change. "Ultimately, we will recognize that men have just as many challenges as women, they are just different," Andersen believes. "But, all men will be better off once they get over the shame associated with keeping their problems secret."

Ten years ago, men accounted for only 10% of eating disorder cases, but recent studies show that 25-33% of patients are men, and that figure appears to be rising.

Today's "everyman" feels social pressures to be lean and muscular. Male skin is definitely in, as evidence on billboards, magazine covers, and shows like NYPD Blue and the numerous Baywatch clones. Even mainstream magazines like TIME and Men's Journal have recently featured bare-chested hunks on their covers. Men want "six-pack" abdominals, yet most are overweight, eat poorly, and do not get enough exercise. Similar to women, 80% of whom want to lose weight, an equal number of men feel bad about how they look, too. Although, interestingly, as many men want to gain weight - particularly pounds of muscle - as lose it. The 95% of dieters who fail to achieve long-term weight loss and the vast majority of men, who are unable to match the bulk of male models, experience poor body image, may develop feelings of sexual inadequacy, have low self esteem, and may acquire eating disorders. Some men turn to cosmetic surgery for a solution. In 1997, men spent $130 million dollars on liposuction, anti-wrinkle injections, pectoral implants, and penile enhancements.

Also, there are some disorders that primarily occur in males, such as "body dysmorphia" a condition which is often referred to as "reverse anorexia" and occurs when an individual thinks he cannot get big or muscular enough. Like an emaciated anorexic who looks in the mirror and sees fat, many overly brawny bodybuilders see parts of their body as being too scrawny. Binge eating disorder is another illness which is as common for men as women, and men who compulsively exercise share many of the same traits as anorexics.

Clinicians are starting to learn more about gender-specific treatment of eating disorders and how eating disorders and body image issues effect the sexes differently. Segregated programs for men can address male sexual and biological concerns, and their needs can be more adequately served - for example, through exercise and strength training classes and nutritional education. Male support groups allow men to express their emotions more openly and with a common language.