Changing the narrative around eating disorders

Nadia Craddock watches Men, Boys & Eating Disorders.

Ten days after ‘To the Bone’ was released on Netflix, the BBC aired a 30-minute documentary on ‘Men, Boys, and Eating Disorders’, presented by the internationally renowned rugby referee Nigel Owens. Importantly, in contrast to the Netflix film, which was criticised by some for depicting a single, stereotypical story of eating disorders (the female protagonist had anorexia nervosa and was emaciated, young, white, and middle-class), the BBC Panorama documentary showed a different, largely untold, story.

Over the course of the programme, Owens met men and boys affected by an eating disorder. For each individual, the severity of the illness was unescapable, seeping insidiously into all aspects of their lives. For instance, James, a 27-year-old who has struggled with both anorexia and bulimia, described how his front teeth were destroyed and had to be replaced due to all the acid erosion from repeated self-induced vomiting. Additionally, both he and another man also called James (aged 25) had to suspend their university studies because of the emotional and physical burden of their respective eating disorders. Similarly, a 14-year old boy missed months off school, as he required urgent, intensive hospital care. Finally, towards the end of the programme, Owens met the mother of Steven, a 20-year-old who tragically died due to complications of anorexia. Even among those of us who are aware of the fact that anorexia is the most deadly of all mental health disorders; a mother’s story of her lost son is immeasurably powerful and hard-hitting.

Owens also shared his own eating disorder story in the documentary, an on-going battle with bulimia that began when Owens was a teenager. Notably, although Owens has been open about his sexuality and history of depression in the past, he admitted that until very recently, he has kept his struggle with bulimia a closely guarded secret. This perhaps hints at the level of stigma there is surrounding male eating disorders. Research shows that on top of the associated stigma for having a mental health condition (Rüsch, Angermeyer & Corrigan, 2005), individuals with eating disorders can experience additional stigma, as they can be viewed as attention seeking or self-inflicted (Griffiths, Mond, Murray & Touyz, 2015). In turn, men with eating disorders can face a further layer of stigma, as eating disorders are often misconceived as an exclusively female condition (Räisänen & Hunt, 2014). Consequently, men with eating disorders can be viewed as effeminate or weak, the antithesis of society’s expectations for masculinity. A tweet in response to publicity for the documentary illustrates this very point: (directed at Owens) “Why’s a grown man like him got a silly little girls’ ‘condition’ …big wimp”. Importantly, experiences or perceptions of such stigma is positively correlated with greater psychopathology and a longer duration of illness(Griffiths et al., 2015). Moreover, it clearly appears to be a significant barrier in seeking treatment. Owens himself seems to be a case in point; he has never sought help in his 27-year battle with his eating disorder.

In light of the stigma surrounding male eating disorders, candidly sharing personal stories takes immense courage and strength, and can go a great way towards helping others. By changing the narrative around eating disorders with new and diverse stories, it is simultaneously possible to raise awareness of the serious reality of eating disorders, as well as attenuating the stigma attached to them. In turn, others may be able to more readily identify their own (or their loved ones) struggles and be empowered to seek help, sooner rather than later. As Owen mentions towards the start of the programme, “eating disorders do not discriminate”. We know from research and clinical practice that eating disorders affect people regardless of their gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity, class or size. We need to continue to hear from those groups whose story remains to be heard in order to improve the outcomes of those affected by eating disorders.

- Nadia Craddock is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England.

Watch the programme now http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08zk03z/panorama-men-boys-eating-d...

References:

Griffiths, S., Mond, J. M., Murray, S. B., & Touyz, S. (2015). The prevalence and adverse associations of stigmatization in people with eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders48(6), 767-774.

Räisänen, U., & Hunt, K. (2014). The role of gendered constructions of eating disorders in delayed help-seeking in men: a qualitative interview study. BMJ open4(4), e004342.

Rüsch, N., Angermeyer, M. C., & Corrigan, P. W. (2005). Mental illness stigma: concepts, consequences, and initiatives to reduce stigma. European psychiatry, 20(8), 529-539. 

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