Why are we talking about this now?
Last month, ex-England cricketer Freddie Flintoff discussed his experience of living with bulimia in a BBC documentary, describing how his struggle began when his weight was highlighted early on in his international career. Despite the recent headlines around the film, male eating disorders still need more time in the spotlight: stats show a quarter of those living with eating disorders in the UK are male, with less than 10% of those men seeking professional help.
According to Holli Rubin, psychotherapist and head of personal wellbeing at The Soke, Flintoff’s revelations have already helped increase awareness of bulimia, the most common eating disorder among men. “Cases of male eating disorders are likely to be under-reported too, as men believe it’s an illness that predominantly affects women, and are therefore reluctant to seek treatment for stereotypically female conditions.” In fact, there’s one disorder – bigorexia – which tends to affect men more than women. “This is where someone perceives themselves to be smaller than they actually are, leading to compulsive exercise, use of steroids and protein shakes,” explains Holli. “And it is often accompanied by depression and mania.”
What triggers an eating disorder?
“Historically, there has been less cultural pressure on men to be slim, but men, like women, are susceptible to the notion of an ideal body type, which is only reinforced by the media,” says Alexia Dempsey, specialist eating disorder dietitian at the Priory Hospital Roehampton. “On a daily basis we’re exposed to billboards of men using their naked upper bodies to sell everything from designer underwear to perfume. The message seems to be, if you look like this, you’ll be attractive, worthy and in control.” Alexia says other triggers include peer pressure and a desire to avoid bullying or teasing for being overweight in childhood. “Athletes are also at risk of developing eating disorders – runners, gymnasts and swimmers to name a few.”
Holli adds that men who are more focused on their physical appearance – athletes or not – tend to be more susceptible to societal influence and body image, which may ultimately develop into an eating disorder. Research shows eating disorders are most common in individuals between the ages of 16 and 40, and those with family members with eating disorders are more likely to develop one themselves.
What impact is the pandemic having?
Bulimia, and other eating disorders, can also be triggered by life events, a lack of control, or life trauma, says Alexia. “Covid uncertainty and its impact on physical health or work could absolutely be taking its toll too.”