Eating Disorders as a 'Feminine Illness'
So, you guys have definitely noticed my absence and to be plain it is as a result of under-motivation. Saddened, confused and bewildered by some few things that have been going on in my life, nothing seemed interesting enough to write about. To be honest, I wasn't interested in doing anything but fuss over how pretty i am LOL (and sleep and drink alcohol, of course). Anyway, a couple of weeks ago (took me weeks to write this post, yes) I was speaking with another blogger about being more personal on our blogs, and it was this conversation that inspired me to read and subsequently write about something a little personal to me. It is so weird cos there have been so many topics thrown at me, but I think because this one is more personal, I am motivated to actually start writing again. I hope that this is me getting over the hump and I can get back to my researching and writing because I had so much 'fun' (for lack of a better word) looking into this topic.
Before people who care about me personally get so concerned, please don't!!! Think of it like a 'so sad I can't eat' situation that got me curious about eating disorders and interested in why it was more prevalent amongst women. Because of my situation I was more focussed on the group for which an eating disorder was "a coping mechanism, or an expression of underlying emotional stress", which is "applicable to males as much as it is females". So, if that is the case why do we consider eating disorders 'female illnesses'? Well, that's what I hope to explain in this post!
In the first article I read the author highlighted two points from a journal which tried to explain why EDs prevailed amongst women. The first explanation went as follows: "the nature of the illness must somehow be atypical in males"; and the second was that "there must be something different about males who develop an eating disorder. For example, it has been suggested that a higher proportion of males with eating disorders might be homosexual" Neither argument did anything for me, which made me even more enthused to investigate further.
York Univ’s Psychology department have conducted research which developed a conclusion along the lines of the first argument. In the experiment they made virtual realities in which the participants (both male and female) were obese in one and skinny in the other. They found that women “demonstrated more prominent brain activity" in response to “owning” a body that is obese compared to their male counterparts”. This research found that there are some neurobiological reasons for women experiencing more body dissatisfaction which led to their conclusion that women are more likely to experience brain activity related to body dissatisfaction.
Buuuuuut as I see it this could all just boil down to social conditioning and the fact that social pressures mean that women are more likely to have “negative feelings about their bodies”. From my experience of the world, a woman’s body image seems to be more important than a man’s body image (if that makes sense) therefore, women are more likely to react to 'negative' alterations to their bodies. Not to mention the global standard of beauty tends to favour thinness in women and muscularity in men; the fact that the 'bulky' physique was not included in the study yet the idealised body type for women was means (as I see it, anyway) that women are more likely to be more stimulated by the images.
Clearly, I am just not here for this neurobiological thing. I think all these 'biological' explanations dangerously underestimate the power that the societies people build, which they follow and which they've grown in have over them. I'm not saying that there are no biological factors behind a person developing an ED, personality type is one such biological factor, buuut I do think it is dangerous to pretend that biological factors are the determining factors in whether or not a person develops an ED.
In trying to understand the disproportionate prevalence of EDs in women vs EDs in men, we must first consider the fact that women are conditioned, from childhood, to be weight conscious. For women, body checking is culturally normative, and if a woman isn’t checking her weight, other women certainly are (especially mothers and aunties)! I’ve been small my whole life and its not something I can ever forget, especially when I gain or lose weight. Due to this collective interest in girls' weight, body consciousness starts from a very young age. An article I read, quoting research conducted at the University of Missouri, stated that "by the eighth or ninth grade, one out of two girls has been on a diet at some point in her life". It is from this upbringing in body consciousness, in schools and family settings, that women learn dissatisfaction even without comparison, whilst men typically only consider their weight in comparison to other men.
Another factor that explains why girls are "10x more prone to developing these disorders than boys are" is the difference in their physical developments during puberty. Puberty makes girls more rounded, we grow boobs and hips and generally gain fat/weight. Meanwhile guys, apparently, tend to get more muscular.
The research my friends and I did was inspired by how American beauty standards are not only easily consumable all over the world, but also seemingly forced upon us. From our readings we understood that a slim figure was ideal amongst women and a muscular physique was ideal for men. Now, in line with the changes we undergo during puberty, it is clear that as girls grow older they move further away from their ‘ideal body type’, whereas boys get closer. Another result of this is that girls who start puberty earlier tend to lose self-esteem, thus experience more self-abuse. Conversely, early puberty in boys leads to gains in "self worth, social status and emotional strength". I am so happy this article pointed this out cos it’s something I missed during our research. I mean I have heard before how beauty standards are way sus because they essentially call for women to look like prepubescent girls, but I have never thought this deeply about it.
What I wanted to address in this article was why it seemed like men were less prone to eating disorders than women. So far I have addressed why they are, but I also want to address why EDs in men are perceived to be pretty much non-existent. First thing is that EDs actually manifest themselves differently in males and in females. This is to do with the fact that male and female ideal body types are different. As being underweight is unattractive in men, the number of men that will experience wanting to be skinnier isn't as high as the number of women who want to be skinnier (if that makes sense). For example, a size M man wouldn’t think ‘must be skinnier’ but a similarly sized woman is likely to. The kind of eating disorders men are more likely to experience are things like muscle dysmorphia, bigorexia and binge eating alongside excessive exercise, as opposed to starvation-like 'diets'. Unfortunately, these EDs are not considered to be EDs in the same way that anorexia, for example, is because these disorders are likely to begin with the man being muscular and fit, therefore "the true pathology of his eating problems may not be apparent until later".
In line with the fact that EDs in men tend to start with them generally being bigger, it has been proven that men tend to develop eating disorders at higher stages of obesity. Men who suffer from EDs have actually had serious weight problems, whereas most women with eating disorders have not. Also the age of onset of bulimia (and probably other EDs as well) is later in males than in females. I guess this fact affirms the stereotype that EDs are for young (white) ladies.
I set out trying to understand and then explain why EDs were perceived to be a feminine illness, in understanding I was successful and I hope I was successful in explaining also. In case I wasn't let me summarise before I come to my final point.
Indeed, as research shows, eating disorders are more prevalent in women. Some research attributes this to neurobiological factors, but I would rather go along with explanations that recognise the influence of society. Firstly, women are under more pressure to look a certain way and experience this pressure from the media, family, school, all aspects of life really. Whereas the pressure for men is less, although there has been increasing emphasis on male embodiment in the media. Secondly, as EDs that are a result of body dissatisfaction depend on that person's ideal body type, they manifest themselves differently in different people; generally women have the slim ideal and men have the muscular one. We associate EDs that achieve the 'feminine ideal' with the term eating disorders, ignoring the fact that men suffer too. Just cos it's different doesn't mean it doesn't exist!!!! Which brings me on to my last point...
I saved the best till last because, to me, this is actually the most important point I have to make and it's simple: Men tend not to report eating disorders. You know, after all my reading and explanation it might boil down to the fact that fewer men come forward about their EDs so we think it doesn't affect them.
As EDs are perceived a 'white girl disease', like non-westerners, men are understandably shy and reluctant to come forward. For fear of people thinking they're gay, because homosexual subculture emphasises body image in men, straight men tend not to be so vocal about their body image dissatisfaction. In terms of muscle dysmorphia, they might not even know their ED exists as it isn't spoken about as much.
I think that there definitely needs to be more research and support for men who suffer from EDs because it's horrible to feel like you have to go through something alone cos that illness is not meant to afflict you. The articles I read spoke about how research on men with EDs is very scarce due to the small sample size (not many men come forward) however, I think they also don't recognise that men might have EDs without saying or even knowing! One research topic adopted a skip mechanism whereby once someone denies the presence of an eating disorder they don’t ask “subsequent questions about the body image concerns or compensatory behaviours that are required for full syndrome diagnosis.” I think this is very lazy but then I guess it isn't their work to pry, prying is annoyinggg. But I do think that society should make more men (and actually women too, about all mental health issues) feel more comfortable about coming forward with their EDs because it is important to be able to find help, when you need it most!
I found out so many interesting things whilst researching this so please please do take a look at the articles I used, because I didn't include everything I read (not all of it was relevant to this article). This is an article I didn't use at all but it is soooo interesting so take a look at it: Diversity and Eating Disorders.