Feminist Relational Model and Male EDs

Today I’ve been re-reading something that I’m including in the chapter I’m currently drafting. This tends to happen, despite having completed secondary analysis some time ago, when I need to have a fulsome think about the details presented in a journal article before I base a substantive point around it – being accurate is an absolute necessity. it’s also one of the perils of studying part-time – all of the preparatory work for the thesis now seems so long ago – as it was, of course! Maine and Bunnell’s article (2008) forms part of a point I explore in my thesis and I employ their thinking positively within my writing. What I wanted to examine briefly here are some of my reservations that have occurred to me both from initial reading and recent re-reading.  They are able to articulate that the feminist relational model has a set of distinct principles:

– that healthy psychological development is “a process of growth toward connection rather than toward separation and individuation.” (p.188)

– that unhealthy maladaptive psychological strategies happen to women as a result of being pushed away from forming connection, in favour of being independent and self-reliant and that this often happens at a time when it is little easy to do so – during adolescence.

– the pain, disconnect and confusion that this enforced autonomy causes can be redirected into disordered relationships with their own bodies and the food that fuels them.

– “The focus is less on individual pathology and more on understanding how the individual’s symptoms are a response to unhealthy pressures, expectations, or roles.” (p.188)

The authors then go on to elaborate how this conceptualisation could help understand EDs in men, as well as contributing to therapeutic interventions and passage through recovery. Their arguments are persuasive and I can certainly see how the ideas have merit given the men who have contributed stories to my research. However, part of my analysis has led to my questioning whether this is really what the male ED field truly needs, given the lack of cohesion that currently abounds. Both men and academics or clinicians studying male subjects have offered comments about the additional stigma men have arguably faced – not only having a mental health problem that significantly debilitates basic functioning, at its worst, but being diagnosed with what is perceived to be a ‘female disease’. If this is the case, is it really advisable to utilise a feminist model to understand male issues. This is not something that has gone down terribly well in its vice versa version. Women, with understandable indignation, have battled against the male-dominated medical model being used on them on subjects, paving the way for women to investigate alternative ways to study women’s lives and health by women for women. I can imagine what a close colleague of mine would say in response to me saying I had applied a masculist theory to understand female anorexia nervosa, for instance. Erudite as she is, I also think she’d have a few choice non-academic arguments as to why this was an endeavour of supreme arrogance and oppression on my part, despite her usual forbearance!

The paper tries to create a link between male ED research and their theoretical investigation of the application of a feminist relational take. Nevertheless, this instead appears to weaken their overall coverage of the benefits of the insight the model generates, as they have to concede that whilst supporting some of the key ideas of the value of trust, empowerment and collaboration within the ED therapeutic relationship, a famous male ED text terms these core conditions neither feminist nor relational. This edges to towards a redundance of the entire theory once these core conditions are seen in the context of what is desirous and beneficial within many talking treatments: a person-centred approach with Rogerian conditions. How a “feminist relational model might help decrease shame and embarrassment tremendously for men with eating and body image disorders.” (p.189), rather than potentially augment said shame is not clear. Especially when these men are already struggling with challenges to their own experience of masculinity and especially given the wealth of helpful therapeutic models that are available that do not have any explicitly-titled affiliations with a gendered theoretical base.

When Morgan (2010) suggested that what is holding the study of men with eating disorders back is the lack of sociocultural study of men and their lives, i.e. that the equivalent of a feminist study of female eating disorders does not exist, I cannot help but think that he was unlikely to mean that this aetiolation is best addressed by simply applying a feminist model to a male experience. Instead, I think he meant that we needed to study, in earnest, a masculist theory of male eating disorder experience. Something that placed men’s experiences at the heart of a qualitative understanding, not a marginalised study of men through the lens of theories developed for and about women using female ED data.



Maine, M. & Bunnell, D. (2008) How do the Principles of the Feminist, Relational Model Apply to Treatment of Men with Eating Disorders and Related Issues? Eating Disorders, Vol 16, pp. 187-192.