Tackling the stigma of male eating disorders

"59.2 kilograms, 130.5 pounds" (Photo: Daniel Oines)

Striving to keep up with social beauty standards puts tremendous pressure on young women – but what about young men?

The stigma surrounding talking about male mental health can create the impression that men don’t worry about their physical appearance or run the risk of suffering from an eating disorder.

But that’s simply not the case, according to life coach Darleen Barton.

Men who approach Ms Barton for coaching support want three things, she says: more attention from the opposite sex, more money, and a bigger stature. Men who can’t get ahead in these areas may try to escape their situation with sport or alcohol, or try to take control over their bodies with purging or food restriction.

“Unfortunately with men, they can mask their eating disorders by going to the gym,” she adds.

“Their testosterone levels allow them to bulk up and not be seen as being scrawny and waif-like or malnourished. They don’t present like that because they’re quite masculine-looking compared to women, who get quite frail and gaunt.”

The man who lived on potatoes for a year

Andrew Taylor, 37, and James Schofield, 25, are two men who have suffered from an eating disorder for a prolonged period of time. Both say that their eating disorders developed from a very early age.

Taylor, whose story went viral around the country after Australian media outlets reported he had lived on potatoes for a whole year to lose weight, struggled with food addiction for years, trying methods like hypnosis to break his unhealthy relationship with food.

“I had this realisation that, the way I have been treating food my whole life had basically been the same as an alcoholic would treat the beer I was just about to drink,” he told Hatch.

“In that moment I realised I was a food addict.”

Taylor decided that solely focusing on one food to eat would be best for him in the long term, and upon 6 weeks of research, decided that potatoes were going to be the best fit.

This is when he began his Spud Fit journey, eating nothing but potatoes to lose 50kg over 12 months. Now he eats a much healthier diet made up solely of whole foods – and says he still hasn’t fully beaten his eating disorder.

“Rather than saying I’ve overcome (it), I’d like to say that I’m on top of things,” he says.

Schofield, who has had a long battle with anorexia, says his eating disorder wasn’t taken seriously when it started during his childhood.

“It was dismissed as, ‘Oh no you’re just a skinny little boy,’ or ‘You’re just a fussy eater,” he says.

Even after becoming a personal trainer this year and having multiple clients that come to him wanting to improve their physical appearance, Schofield says that his eating disorder is still something that he struggles with.

“I have to make a very conscious effort to force myself to eat enough, but if I’m really being honest it hasn’t really gotten better or gone away. I think it’s just changed,” he says

Taylor says the impact of social media on his sense of body image is a problem for him and other young men.

“It’s more common now to feel like your body is never good enough because you want to be more muscular, or want to look a certain way. Social media is a factor in that.”

Stigma may hide male eating disorders

Taylor and Schofield struggled through different eating disorders. What they have in common is that neither of them sought professional help specifically for their eating disorders, but both did approach doctors for help with depression and anxiety.

And they report similar outcomes from those medical consultations. Pills were prescribed and they were sent on their way. They both say they were offered no additional support, like a referral to a psychologist.

Darleen Barton says that of her clients, roughly half the number of men talk to her about body-related issues as women – but she says social stigma may be masking a much higher number.

“[Asking for help] doesn’t mean that you’re weak. As a matter of fact I say people who put their hat in the ring for help have great courage. They aren’t worried about exposing themselves in order to be better.”

Darleen says the spaces where men go to deal with – or escape – their issues, like gyms, should be targeted to improve public messaging.

“If we can work with gyms that have got men on programs to build their bodies, and with the people that are writing and implementing these programs for these people, they need to do a little bit of counselling themselves, or learn a bit more about counselling, so they can get down to the route of the problem,” she says.

Listen to Eden’s podcast featuring interviews with Andrew Taylor, James Schofield and Darleen Barton

If you or anyone you know is struggling with the issues in this article, free appointments can be organised to see a psychologist through your GP, or you can visit the Butterfly Foundation for advice. – Eden Borella