When I asked my friend how her kids were doing, I didn’t expect everything to be perfect. But what she said really took me by surprise. “Joey has an eating disorder. It’s anorexia.” I offered comfort and then the questions just started flowing. What do male eating disorders even look like? How did you discover it? What can you do to help him? Are you OK?
I remember obsessing with friends over weight issues when I was younger, but those were always girl friends. The boys I knew were on a different planet. Sure, they cared about making the team and working out. Some of the guys who were overweight got picked on. But guys obsessing over their weight to the point of an eating disorder? No way. Well, it turns out there were boys with eating disorders then, too. In the ’90s, males represented one in 10 cases. But now, evidence suggests for the first time that male eating disorders are increasing at a faster rate than female eating disorders. Listen up, moms of boys. Eating disorders are not just an issue for moms of girls.
Why the spike in numbers?
Studies back this, but I’ll sum it up with my own words, based simply on research done by my two brown eyes: Images of hot guys are everywhere and women are celebrating it, loudly. In the film Crazy, Stupid Love, Emma Stone’s character, Hannah, tells Ryan Gossling’s character, Jacob, to take off his shirt. When he does, her jaw drops at the sight of his 12-pack and she responds: “It’s like you’ve been Photoshopped!”
If you say your son doesn’t watch chick flicks, I’ve got one word for you: Avengers. Scratch that. One name: Thor. And if that doesn’t convince you that our boys are being bombarded with images of highly-chiseled men, research has found that simply playing body-emphasizing video games has been shown to increase boys’ negative body-image.
How do male eating disorders compare to female?
There are similarities, especially in the signs (constantly weighing himself, refusing to eat certain food groups, obsessing over nutrition labels). Girls with eating disorders are typically obsessed with being thin while the majority of boys tend to be more focused on getting a muscular build. It’s called “reverse anorexia” or “bigorexia.” But don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s all about bulking up. Twenty-five percent of cases of anorexia nervosa are among males. In fact, that’s what my friend’s son fought. He wanted a lean body, so he ran and ran and ran—and didn’t eat.
Another difference between female and male eating disorders is onset. Research is finding that boys might experience earlier onset, sometime between early and mid-adolescence.
What can we do to help?
All those rules about how we speak in front of our daughters about our weight and our relationships with food? You betcha. They apply to our sons, too. We have to have our eyes open. If your son is showing signs, get help. What makes treating male eating disorders dicier is stigma. In general, many of us just don’t want to seek help. That is compounded by the fact that we are asking our sons to accept help for something that is characterized as feminine in nature. But there’s good news: There are great resources out there and hope for our boys.
How do you talk to your son about his relationship with food?