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Why Eating Disorders are Surging Among American Men

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Anorexia: Not just for girls anymore Thinkstock

By Nina Emkin

04/07/11

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Avon is equally vigilant.  He regularly sees his therapist and dietitian, attends a support group every other week, and gives eating disorder awareness talks at local high schools.  But he says that despite his efforts, the old compulsion to starve himself still crops up occasionally.  When it does, though, instead of giving in to the urge, “I remind myself of all the bad stuff that came with the disease: depression, isolation, physical problems, loss of all my emotions.  When I think about that, I can’t logically pick a skinnier body over all that stuff.”

Perhaps one of the toughest challenges faced by a straight man with an eating disorder is admitting his illness to a woman.  Avon’s wife, whom he began dating before his eating disorder began, has been supportive. “She actually changed herself to try to better my life.  She cut people out of her life that were very detrimental to us and to my recovery. She did everything possible to educate herself in order to have a better understanding about the disease. She changed how she reacted to me in regards to urges…or triggers,” he says, and, “as a result, we’re both better people and we have a better relationship.” Wright, who is single, says that he doesn’t divulge the details of his past unless he’s in a serious relationship, explaining that, “It’s not particularly pleasant subject for me or anyone else.”

Bonnie Taub-Dix says that, while the basic pathology is similar for men and women with eating disorders, one of the triggers can be “competitive sports, where body shape and size are important, like gymnastics or crew or jockeys or wrestling.”  She adds, “I’ve heard of gyms where there are pails next to the machines in case men need to throw up because they’re pushing themselves to such an excessive degree.”  Despite some differences in triggers (because, of course, most girls don’t worry about their weight class for wrestling), Leigh Cohn says that anorexic men often display many of the same symptoms as anorexic woman. The only real disparity he notes is that exercise addiction is more common among men than women.

If there’s any consensus about male eating disorders (and there isn’t much, because the topic has been largely ignored by the medical community), it’s that recovery is only possible with treatment.  And treatment, of course, is only possible with the admission that a problem exists.  So, what’s a guy to do, in a culture like ours, where being a “man” means being stoic, looking like a Navy SEAL, and never admitting to weakness or vulnerability?

Avon offers some sage advice from his hard-won experience in the trenches of anorexia:  “They estimate that there are a million men with eating disorders out there.  I felt alone for so long, and that’s what kept me locked in my illness.  Do not be ashamed of who you are.  If you had cancer, you wouldn’t be ashamed of that.  It’s a disease.  It doesn’t make you defective, or less of a man.  It’s not easy, but you can get through it and beat it.”

Nina Emkin holds degrees from UCLA and Sarah Lawrence College and has written for DipDive and Citysearch. She currently lives in Los Angeles. She also wrote Coming Out as An Alcoholic.

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