In June, Men’s Health Month offers a unique opportunity to highlight health and wellness considerations related to men. Conditions like heart disease, prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and stroke are common topics during this month. Eating disorders and body image, on the other hand, are rarely topics of conversation.
Eating disorders impact all of us. Eating disorders know no gender, no race, no socioeconomic background, no body type. They do not discriminate. However, research surrounding men, eating disorders and body image is severely underfunded. Statistics on men and eating disorders only tell a fraction of the true story.
Less than 1% of eating disorder research focuses on men. Within that limited body of research, most research studies examine eating disorders in a binary way, focusing solely on cisgender men. This approach neglects the fact that trans men are men, too and leaves trans, agender, genderfluid and non-binary folks out of consideration. The vast majority of eating disorder research also does not highlight gay men, despite the fact that the limited research we have on the topic indicates a higher instance of eating disorders in this population. Beyond gender and sexuality, this lack of representation extends to Black and Indigenous men, older men, and men in larger bodies. So, while the body of research dedicated to men and eating disorders seriously underrepresents the prevalence of eating disorders, a failure to consider people across a broad spectrum of identities exacerbates this underrepresentation.
This same lack of representation carries through into the topic of body image. Body image is a popular topic of concern for women, but rarely registers as a consideration for men. Just as eating disorders can impact anyone, body image issues can impact anyone. A pervasive focus on muscularity is just as problematic as a pervasive focus on thinness. But, longstanding stereotypes of what negative body image “looks like” can stand in the way of seeing concerning patterns and behavior.
At Reasons, we believe that representation matters. In the context of eating disorder treatment, the false stereotype of eating disorders as a “white woman’s issue” is reinforced by a preponderance of photos and content on thin, white, cisgender women. Lack of diverse and balanced representation in imagery and content can lead to blind spots for clinicians and sufferers alike, ultimately resulting in under-diagnosis of eating disorders among those who do not look like the stereotype.
Beyond reinforcing barriers to diagnosis and treatment, underrepresentation also can have a deep personal impact. As individuals, when we do not see people who look like us represented on a topic, we tend to believe that the issue doesn’t apply to us, or worse, that something is “wrong” with us. Underrepresentation stokes the fires of denial, fear, confusion, embarrassment and shame. Eating disorders already touch on so many of these complex and difficult emotions. For underrepresented communities, these feelings can be even further exacerbated, leading to unique challenges on the road to recovery.
Health awareness observances like Men’s Health Month are beneficial means to increasing awareness of conditions that can impact men. They are also reminders of the importance of looking beyond traditional labels and identities. Each of us is far more than any single aspect of our personal identity – be it gender, race, culture, religion or socioeconomics. When it comes to exploring health and wellness, an intersectional perspective is key. Each facet of our identities can impact how we see the world, how the world sees us, and how we gain access to the diagnoses and treatments we need – for eating disorders and beyond. Take time this month to explore the issue of men and eating disorders so you can better understand how this aspect of identity impacts access to care. And know that those who identify as men are more than just men. For yourself or for the cis- and trans-men in your life, we encourage you to explore and have conversations about how the many aspects of your identity impact your lens on health and wellness.