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Victoria man looks to end stigma around eating disorders in men

One in four men in Canada have an eating disorder, but that’s just those who identify as struggling
The National Eating Disorder Infomation Centre estimates that one in four boys and men in Canada are struggling with an eating disorder. (Courtesy of Pixabay)

The hardest part about having an eating disorder as a man is people not believing that it exists, according to a Victoria resident.

Simon, who is not using his last name due to stigma and fear of backlash, is recovering from an eating disorder, but to get the support he needs he says that it took years of trying to convince dietitians that he was struggling.

Across Canada’s health system, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) most recent edition published in 2013 guides medical experts to provide support for individuals with eating disorders according to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC.)

While NEDIC’s website states revisions to the recent DSM are intended to be inclusive to men affected by an eating disorder, Simon says it’s still challenging for him to get recognition for recovery support.

“It is more difficult to actually seek out treatment. I believe that they’re trying to switch up their criteria to make it more inclusive, but in older editions at least it was very much so written for females and non-males with eating disorders.” Simon explains.

Education coordinator for NEDIC, Ary Maharaj agrees that the manual needs an update. He mentions Canada’s last estimate of the national prevalence of eating disorders was through the Canadian Community Health Survey in 2012 which the DSM refers to.

“We don’t even have a kind of base foundational data that’s up to date as to how many Canadians are even living with an eating disorder. Everything we have to do is estimates,” says Maharaj. “So the really important and necessary question is, how is that split by gender?”

NEDIC estimates that one in four boys and men in Canada are struggling with an eating disorder. However, Maharaj notes that the statistic is only from boys and men who identify that they’re struggling.

“There’s a chance that given the stigma around eating disorders and potentially around boys and men struggling with it, that it’s an under-count,” says Maharaj. “When we look at the symptoms of an eating disorder things like weight control behaviours of sex, exercise, restricting, eating, intermittent fasting, things like that those numbers can go up to 40 to 45 per cent of boys and men struggling.”

Some of the stigmatization Simon faced was while he danced competitively and had to be measured for costumes. He mentioned that there was pressure to stay the same shape or lose weight depending on the costume size.

“Primarily it was like, ‘Oh well you’re not of a very certain weight to be struggling with an eating disorder so therefore you don’t have one,” Simon says he was told. “Just because I am bigger built doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with the same issues.”

Simon is hoping that the stigmatization of having to be classified as a certain weight to have an eating disorder vanishes. As a member of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, Simon is also hoping there will be more awareness for people like him.

Maharaj reports that members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ are five times more likely to experience eating disorders than individuals who identify as cisgender and heterosexual. He says that there isn’t stigmatization within the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, but rather outside of it.

“Sometimes we have an idea that we can spot if someone is gay or a gay man because they must dress a certain way or look a certain way. The fact that we even have a look in our heads about that means that those are body standards that then gay men might feel like they have to live up to or for trans men thinking about trying to have the most masculine features can also be important for their safety, “says the education coordinator.

One of the biggest differences Maharaj reports seeing between male and female eating disorders is the language being used. He says girls and women will often use the word ‘dieting’ while men use the terms ‘bio-hacking, bulking, and cutting.’

“In terms of working in the public interest and sharing awareness to know that some of those same behaviours that we see when girls and women around restricting and weight control might be appearing in boys and men they just might be sounding a little different,” says Maharaj.

The education coordinator also reported that constantly working out can be noted as a sign of an eating disorder.

“For many boys and men, they might get explicit joy and fun by getting to go to the gym. I think when that behaviour can potentially be flagged as disordered eating behaviour when it’s starting to become really rigid and excessive,” says Maharaj.

Simon is hoping that more specific support for male eating disorders can be offered on Vancouver Island and that old stereotypes can be dropped.

“They need to stop the stigma and just if someone says they’re struggling with something then the majority of the time they are,” says Simon.

Vancouver Island Voices for Eating Disorders told Black Press Media that it hopes for more conservation around male eating disorders and has a peer support group.

“Activism that calls for better support for 2SLGBTQIA+ identifying folks and men is definitely needed nationwide. Our core team only has one male-identifying member, but several men have attended our support group over the years. It’s such a difficult thing to talk about, let alone with a lack of representation and such prominent stereotypes that don’t remotely capture the diverse populations of people who experience eating disorders. We continue to do what we can to advocate for increased awareness and support, but there’s much for us and others to do.”

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About the Author: Ella Matte

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