In a Barbie society, it's just as hard to be a Ken.
Artwork by Anna Boyle
What comes to mind when you think of eating disorders? Whatever type you may think of, the stereotype of a frail, white girl is the picture for most of us. But, what about an overweight male? An Asian with a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) but has self-destructive eating habits? A queer black person whose obsession with exercise and clean eating intrudes daily life? Those images probably don't come as intuitively, but the statistics say you may need to reconsider your prototype.
At the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) Walk on April 7, at Schenley Park, the lack of inclusiveness in the dialogue for eating disorders was explicitly brought up. One of the speakers at the event shared her journey of suffering and recovering from an eating disorder. She concluded her speech by questioning how her journey towards recovering may have differed if she did not fall into the traditional prototype of a person with an eating disorder. She probed whether she would have been treated the same way if she were in the LGBTQ+ community, male, a racial minority, or not emaciated. Her speech called for a demand for intersectional dialogue on eating disorders: one that sees no barriers from qualities such as race, gender, or sexuality.
I observed the attendees of the walk. Most were female, and the few males who were in the crowd were walking beside a woman and carrying a poster saying they walked for their fiancee or girlfriend. Perhaps the lack of male attendance lies in men showing solidarity and support through different means than women do. However, I could not help but wonder how many sufferers are out there and cast aside because they do not fit into the prototype and fear they may be treated or perceived as anyone but someone who suffers from a critical medical condition.
The reach of the lack of inclusiveness does not stop at a single walk. At various health centers on and near campus such as the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and University Health Services (UHS), I have seen flyers about a group therapy program geared towards women who suffer from eating disorders. I understand that gender can play a role in health and recovery. Women may feel more comfortable opening up and may get more out of therapy if there is a treatment group with women who can better understand the psychological and physical toll that eating disorders take. However, never once have I seen either healthcare centers show any support for men with eating disorders. Getting help is hard enough; men should not have to face the additional obstacle of not having resources available.
One may argue that there isn't one for men because more women are impacted by eating disorders. However, as of 2016, over one-third of people with a diagnosable eating disorder are male. As many mental illnesses go undiagnosed, it would come as no surprise if the number of men who are not diagnosed with eating disorders but need treatment was significant enough to skew these numbers. Psychiatrist Kimberli McCallum estimates that up to 80 percent of men with eating disorders go around undiagnosed. Before thinking of eating disorders, many doctors might say the culprit of the health problems is gastrointestinal problems or thyroid problems. The apparent lack of participation or demand for such a support group may lie heavily on diagnoses going unknown and not having treatments inaccessible for many men.
Furthermore, we must acknowledge that unrealistic beauty standards are not exclusive to women. We are all familiar and conscious of the standards imposed on women: picture a skinny hourglass body and thigh gap grazing the cover of Sports Illustrated or on the runway. Most of us are aware of the extent Photoshop is used to enhance photos of women. The rise in awareness has led to companies such as Target and Aerie to have photoshop-free models, advertising them as "real" women. Although we should maintain transparency when it comes to Photoshop usage in magazines and social media, where is the awareness of male beauty standards and photoshopped male models?
Think of the "ideal" male body: lean and muscular usually pops into mind. However, how many ad campaigns have you seen going against that grain? In order to achieve that ideal male body, men often have to sacrifice their mental and physical health. Bodybuilders boast their low body fat percentage, which can go even lower than five percent. To put that number in perspective, the average male body fat percentage lies around fifteen to twenty percent, three percent being absolutely vital. Although most of them do not keep that ratio when they are not in the limelight, they are being presented as people with sustainable and attainable bodies. Consequently, men can be put under the notion that they, too, should reach these ideals. Men's struggle to reach these unsustainable bodies mirror those that women face when reaching their respective "ideal" bodies: coldness, low energy, negative change in mood, and poorer physical health, to name a few.
Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illnesses. To combat this, we must not look at one demographic who suffers; we must reach out to all who suffer. In order to do so, we must remain cognizant of factors that impact not just women but men. We must keep dialogue and resources open and accessible to anyone regardless of their identity. Fighting an eating disorder is hard enough by itself; we should not implement barriers that make it even more difficult for others to recover.