Back in May 2011 I gave a presentation at the Men Get Eating Disorders Too Conference; I was there as a trustee but mainly as the ‘less personal experience, more research input’ contributor which seemed to work in offering a good balance. We heard from authors, practitioners, parents and men themselves about the situations they find themselves in with damaging relationships with food or exercise and their own body image.
I can’t tell you how difficult it was to write my presentation, I was up first so I wanted to offer an overview of research but not be boring, to be informative and accurate without it seeming like some far-removed endeavour (you know the thing, where it’s all very well having a research-informed talk but it seems to bear little relevance to the everyday experiences of men who actually have eating disorders). That wasn’t why it was difficult, though. What made it tricky was that when I really got down to it, what could I offer people about what the research has to say about eating disorders and blokes? Honestly? Very little.
Ultimately, when I scrutinised two of the major publications which cover eating disorders research (varying from highly medical stuff, through to life-story studies) I could only find fifteen papers that were current:
– Of these only twelve gave attention to eating disorders or body image issues in men within the last three years.
– Of these twelve only three were from the UK.
– Of these three only two reported on ‘experiences’.
– Of these two, zero covered eating disorders per se, they dealt with body image-related issues. Neither was focused on how men might recover. (Though I would argue both articles had been written to further knowledge with the hope of improving the lot of men experiencing the problems they cover.)
(Please check out my website if you would like to see the list of papers I found, with added notes.)
This is fascinating being as, in practical terms, how many of us would go to the doctor and say ‘I think I might need help, I’ve got body image issues’. We may be more likely to say, for example, ‘I think I might need help, I spend hours in the gym then I eat enough pasta to feed a family for a week all in one go,’ or ‘I think I need help, I constantly hide food and haven’t eaten a meal for over six months.’
I would add at this point that I’m not suggesting that the papers above were ‘wrong’ to look at the topics they chose; nor am I apportioning ‘blame’ somewhere, not least because there will be no single factor at fault. However, the situation does need to be addressed, particularly now at a time when funding is ever more scarce. How can health or community services offer appropriate treatment and support if they don’t know what they need to provide?
In the most impactful way, this is exactly how research influences real life. The more evidence there is to suggest there is a genuine problem, the more likely the issue is to be taken seriously. The more the issue is taken seriously the more likely men are to come forward to get help (whatever form that might take). The more men who come forward for help the more likely we are to have researchers looking into how best to offer that support and how to tailor it to a specific group.
What we need then, are more people willing to ask complex questions about what’s going on with the health of the men in our society and to engage, even in small steps, in investigating the needs of men, alongside those of women. Relatively new charities such as Men Get Eating Disorders Too have campaigning sway here; they can encourage, support and disseminate new research. As the charity grows I hope that we might be able to look at seeking joint funding with researchers to deepen the understanding of the experience and needs of males so that what we see is a better balance. I don’t believe there should be less focus on women, that would be ludicrous, there just needs to be more focus on men before things get out of hand over the next century.