Changing the narrative around eating disorders and the impact of toxic masculinity.

This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week and the national eating disorder charity, Beat, has set the agenda to focus on the male experience of eating disorders. Men make up approximately 25% of the population who live with eating disorders. What’s more, an NHS Health Survey for England found that 13% of men in England could be diagnosed with an eating disorder based upon questions related to eating disorder symptoms. Sadly, this figure is on the rise year on year. 

Beat’s campaign calls on the community to “change the narrative” about men and eating disorders, stating that #StrangerThingsHaveHappened then a man having an eating disorder. Damaging myths and stereotypes persist that mean that men are often left out of the narrative around eating disorders, and suffer unique barriers to diagnosis and specialist support as a result. 

One such barrier is the mistaken belief that eating disorders are “feminine” or “female” illnesses. Whilst data suggests more women than men seem to suffer from them, as awareness and understanding around eating disorders improves, it’s clear that a lot more men are suffering than ever before or than we’ve ever recognised. Additionally, the way that we diagnose an eating disorder is becoming more inclusive of more nuanced presentations that don’t fit the “thin, white, female” stereotype. 

The belief that “men don’t have eating disorders” is further endorsed by the pervasiveness of toxic masculinity that sets society’s expectations of men and boys. If we’re going to change the narrative around how we understand eating disorders, we have to understand how toxic masculinity undermines attempts to diagnose and treat men and boys. 

So, what is toxic masculinity? 

Toxic masculinity is a set of cultural and societal norms of masculinity that emphasise violence, aggression and emotional repression. It defines a narrative for “how to be male”, and this can be particularly challenging if you deviate from the expectations of your gender, and introduce fundamental anxieties around our sense of belonging and acceptance. 

Toxic masculinity is embedded into our culture, meaning that it’s something we grow up around and exist within, often without realising. It has three core components: 

  1. Toughness: the idolisation of physical strength and aggression 
  1. Anti-feminity: rejecting anything in themselves that may appear feminine, weak or vulnerable 
  1. Power: a belief that success, achievement and high social status must be pursued 

If gender stereotypes exist to tell us how to “be” in the world, then toxic masculinity emphasises the worst and most stereotypical aspects of masculinity, often encouraging homophobia or misogyny. An example of toxic masculinity is when a boy cries and his father tells him to “toughen up” because “men don’t cry”. 

These three components above are so significant that a 2007 study found that men who held more traditional notions of masculinity were more likely engage in unhealthy behaviours (such as drinking alcohol, smoking and avoiding healthy eating habits eg fruit and veg) and perceive this as “normal”. Similarly, a 2011 study found that this demographic were less likely to engage in preventative healthcare – i.e. visiting the doctor and behaving with an effort to prevent illness. 

Avoiding vulnerability means that we avoid our selves 

Possibly the most damaging aspect of toxic masculinity is the aversion of femininity and how this extends to an aversion of vulnerability or anything that is misguidedly perceived as “weak”. 

As the saying goes: “If you’re not saying it, you’re storing it…and that stuff gets heavy.” This quote refers to the difficulty we experience when we repress our emotional experience and hold it within ourselves. Over time, the “incongruence” (i.e. the conflict we experience between how we present vs how we feel) becomes too much to bear, and that’s when difficulties can manifest, such as eating disorders. 

An aversion to vulnerability is an essential aversion to ourselves. We are always going to have moments of vulnerability or feel vulnerable in relation to something at any given time. It is entirely human and entirely healthy. 

The toxic masculinity reverence for toughness and anything that could be perceived as “feminine” i can be deeply damaging. It is equally shaming and silencing. Rather than encouraging a sense of power over our problems, it can cause us to become suffocated and feel powerless, and less able to effectively face and solve our problems in the face of them because of lacking a skillset to respond to them.  

It feels important to end this article with a few facts: 

  1. You’re not abnormal if the toxic masculinity narrative doesn’t fit with you. In fact, it’s a real strength that you can see beyond its limiting principles.
  1. It can take just one person to change the narrative. Perhaps it can start with you? What can you do differently today to undo toxic masculinity? 
  1. If you are struggling, or are concerned you may have an eating disorder, simply reach out. There are people who want to help and who will respond to your contact without judgement and with kindness. 

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