According to official statistics released by eating disorder charity, ‘NEDA’, there is approximately one male diagnosed with an eating disorder for every ten females.
This statistic is debated as potentially not telling the full story, however, due to it only representing those who have actively sought out treatment for their eating disorder (something which a lot of men will not do as they fear being stigmatised for being a man with a stereotypical ‘female’ illness.) The reality, then, is that the statistic of males with eating disorders is likely to be far higher than it is reported as being, with NEDA themselves suggesting that it could in fact be as high as 40% (that meaning that, for every 4 women with an eating disorder, there is one man.) This is therefore evidence that men too suffer from eating disorders, albeit, often, in a different form to their female counterparts, thus explaining why their symptoms often go overlooked/get dismissed. For example, whilst a woman’s desire to achieve thinness is often the trigger for the onset of an eating disorder, for a man, their eating disorder is more likely to be triggered by a desire to be ‘muscular’ and ‘toned.’ Therefore, whilst a woman aspiring for the former, (thinness), is likely to restrict their diet to achieve such a result, a man aspiring for big muscles is likely to partake in excessive exercise and potentially take harmful drugs such as steroids to ‘bulk up.’ Both are equally as dangerous, although the latter often gets overlooked, purely and simply because it does not meet the ‘criteria’ for what we automatically think of when we hear the words ‘eating disorder’ (an emaciated teenage girl who eats as little as possible.)
Despite the proportion of men with eating disorders likely being higher than it is actually reported as being, as discussed in the paragraph above, what remains the same regardless of the exact number of male cases, is this: a considerably greater proportion of women have eating disorders than men, whether that be ten times more (as official statistics suggest), or four times more, (as is believed to be a more accurate indication of the figure.) It is because of this discrepancy in cases between the sexes that has led me to write this post today, as I explore why this is the case, why do so many more women than men suffer from eating disorders in our society?…
Firstly, we can look at biological factors that lead to more women being affected by eating disorders in comparison to men. These are internal factors that cannot be changed, despite our best efforts to do so.
- Biological factors
It should come as no surprise that, biologically, men and women are ‘wired up’ differently, with this difference most notably being seen in our hormones. Whereas men have testosterone, women have oestrogen. It is this hormone in women, (oestrogen), that causes them to menstruate (have a period once a month.) During this period, (pardon the pun), many women struggle with poor body image due to the hormonal changes that occur, influencing both their emotional and physical state and increasing their risk of developing an eating disorder.
Next, we can look at social and cultural factors that contribute to the high prevalence of eating disorders in women. These are external factors that can be changed, but to do so society must change the way in which they talk to and about women and girls.
2. Social and cultural factors
There are many social and cultural factors that make women and girls more at risk of developing eating disorders than men and boys. One example of such a factor is the, still all too common, objectification/sexualisation of the female sex. This sees girls being taught from a very young age that to be a woman means to be beautiful and ‘nice to look at.’ They are handed barbie dolls that reinforce this message from pretty much the day they are born, with this only serving to ingrain in them the message that how one looks to other people is the most important thing (which, is obviously as far from the truth as one can get.)
Another external factor can be seen in the representation of women in the media, whereby, the same thin, idealised body type is reinforced to girls and women again and again, as they are told that, to be successful in life, they must be extremely aware of their size and shape. Diet companies have been long known to gain from this sense of hyper-awareness that women have surrounding their bodies, hence why such companies have historically been targeted at women who they set as their primary ‘target customers’ (although this has changed somewhat these days, with more men being depicted as users of diet companies in TV adverts etc. My opinion, though, is that diet companies shouldn’t exist at all, whether they are targeted at men, women, aliens, who/whatever, but that’s a whole other post.)
Aside from the objectification and sexualisation of women being a prime factor that points to the high prevalence of eating disorders in women, another indicating factor of this is the language we use regarding women’s bodies. For example, when was the last time you heard a man pondering over whether they’re ‘beach body ready’ yet? The answer is probably not for a long time, if ever. Women, however, they’re constantly scrutinising their bodies, their anxiety mounting over how others, let alone themselves, will judge their ‘winter’ bodies (a concept that is so strange to me. Why on earth do we feel the need to describe our bodies as ‘summer’ or ‘winter.’ A body is a body, regardless of what time of the year it is.)
All in all, then, it is a combination of both biological and societal/cultural factors that explain the, wrongfully, high prevalence of eating disorders in women compared to the prevalence of EDs in men. Whilst we can’t change the biological makeup of women to reduce how many women are diagnosed with eating disorders, something that we can change is the way that we all, collectively, perceive and consequently treat women, shifting from inferring that a woman’s self-worth is centred solely on her external characteristics, like the way her body looks, to inferring the truth– that our self-worth, whatever our sex, is centred on our internal characteristics, like how we treat others, and what lights us up inside.