Since the corona crisis, it has become increasingly common for people to develop an eating problem later in life. Just like women, men can also suffer from an eating disorder. Yet less is known about it and this disorder is often overlooked in men. Two experts explain why.
An eating disorder develops in the same way in both men and women. The symptoms are also similar. Yet eating disorders in women are more likely to be noticed.
“Initially, this has to do with what men and women see as ideal body image,” says Greta Noordenbos, senior researcher and assistant professor at the department of clinical psychology at Leiden University. “For women it is the norm to be slim and the fear of becoming fat is great. While men do not want to be slim at all, but rather muscular.”
An eating disorder is mainly seen as a ‘women’s ailment’, says Lidewy Hendriks, psychologist at MIND Correlation. Figures show that 95 percent of people with anorexia nervosa are women. Nevertheless, Hendriks thinks that the figures do not give an accurate picture. “Because men don’t or hardly talk about it, they don’t come up in any research.”
It’s hard to share emotions
There are men who find it difficult to show vulnerability and share emotions. “Only two men have to act tough in a group of friends, and the tendency is soon great for the rest to join the conversation,” says Hendriks. Noordenbos adds: “Girls often talk to each other about how they feel, while it does not fit into the image of men to say, for example, that you are gloomy and depressed.”
It is accepted among men that they exercise a lot and work on their body that way. Muscles are not seen as a bad thing.
Lidewy Hendriks, psychologist
Although it may seem so, anorexia nervosa is not related to the body ideal. “It mainly has to do with insecurity, a distorted body image, perfectionism and pressure to perform,” says Hendriks.
“And although these are personal characteristics that should not be gender-dependent, these characteristics are mainly attributed to women. It is accepted in men that they exercise a lot and work on their body that way. Muscles are not seen as something bad.”
Eating disorder is not seen as a problem
“In addition, an eating disorder is not initially seen as a problem,” explains Noordenbos. “People with anorexia nervosa see it as very positive to eat less and lose weight. It gives them self-confidence and self-esteem. Losing weight gives something to hold on to and is like a lifeline.”
Some of the men feel less like a man if they have to admit that they suffer from a ‘girl problem’.
Lidewy Hendriks, psychologist
Ignorance also plays a role in the fact that eating problems are seen less quickly in men. Noordenbos remembers a situation in which a boy ate less and less and his parents also noticed that he had lost a lot of weight. “But they themselves did not immediately think of an eating disorder, and that was not the first thing that came up with the GP. He thought of a hormonal growth disorder.”
Social change is needed
According to Hendriks, it would therefore be good if there was more room for not only women, but also for men to talk about their condition. It should also feel safer, she says. “As annoying as it is, some men really feel even less of a man if they behave ‘like a girl’. Especially if they have to admit that they suffer from a ‘girl problem’.”
The turning point often occurs when people experience extreme fatigue and can no longer concentrate or exercise because their body is too weak.
Greta Noordenbos, researcher and lecturer in clinical psychology
So social change is therefore in order, thinks Hendriks. “As a society, we are increasingly aware of gender differences, but we are not there yet.” As an example, she cites the increasing pressure to constantly perform. “It only gets bigger. And that’s where many eating disorders start, with not feeling good enough.”
Stop thinking of it as ‘women’s disease’
What can you do if you find yourself in an unhealthy relationship with food? “Many men, just like women, often know very well that they suffer from an eating disorder,” says Noordenbos. “But someone only raises the alarm when it really doesn’t work anymore. The turning point often arises when people suffer from extreme fatigue and can no longer concentrate or exercise because their body is too weak.”
For that reason alone it would be good if an eating disorder is no longer seen as a ‘women’s ailment’. In this way, general practitioners and someone’s environment can also identify the symptoms earlier.
“And seek help,” Hendriks emphasises. “Talk about it with friends or family. And if you have the feeling that they won’t understand, go to the doctor. If that’s still a threshold too high, know that you can call the helpline free of charge and anonymously at MIND Correlationship , or chat or app with a professional counselor.”
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