The statistics are alarming. Even worse, the numbers keep getting worse. Boys and men now make up a larger percentage of anorexics than ever before in the medically documented history of the human race.
Just 10 years ago, only 5 percent of anorexics were male. According to a Canadian study cited in GQ this month, that number has risen to 30 percent in less than a decade, and clinicians say it’s rising fast.
Similarly to sexual assault, social stigma prevents men from coming forward about their eating disorders. Males are considered by the American Psychological Association to be far less likely to open up about their anorexia then females. Still, more are getting ill, and more are being diagnosed.
A February report by NBC News called boys “the new face of anorexia.”
Anorexia, rising in males far faster than it is rising in females, is destroying the health and wellbeing of young boys around the world.
The image of anorexia has been pin-thin female celebrities and female runway models. But anorexia doesn’t care who it kills, and there are now over 1.5 million documented cases of anorexia among American males. The National Eating Disorders Association estimates that there are millions more left unaccounted for. They say the statistics are skewed because boys are not assumed to have anorexia and thus are not admitted into rehab.
In England, Taylor Kerkham had a feeding tube inserted in his stomach to save his life in 2010. He was 11 years old at the time.
His mom decided to speak out about his case to raise awareness about anorexia in boys. “He was so malnourished that he was hallucinating and his heart was under tremendous strain,” she told the press.
The lack of knowledge and awareness among primary-care physicians has worsened the problem. “It is not what a primary-care physician will consider at first glance. Often it won’t be what they consider at fourth or fifth glance,” said Mark Warren, founder of the Cleveland Center for Eating Disorders, in a GQ article.
So what’s behind the numbers? Why such a climb in rates? GQ says the male body has become obsessively glorified more so than usual in “advertising, movies, sports, and of course, magazines like GQ” over the last decade. The male body, GQ claims, has become a “fetish object” standing for something for something young boys crave: social acceptance, love, and happiness.
Ten, even twenty years ago, role models for young boys didn’t look the way they do today. They were bigger and buffer. From WWE superstar wrestlers to rappers like Ja Rule and 50 Cent, boys looked up to muscular icons. Vin Diesel movies and N*Sync music videos didn’t glamorize or glorify skinny guys. Even the big-time athletes like Barry Bonds and Shaq were bigger then than the athletes of today.
But the age of steroids and bodybuilding has faded. British and American mannequins have gotten skinnier and skinnier every year. They now have waist sizes 11 to 14 inches smaller than average. Eating disorder campaigns say the 27-inch waists on mannequins are encouraging men and boys to starve themselves. And the biggest young male pop stars- Justin Bieber, Cody Simpson, Nick Jonas and Jaden Smith – are skinny.
This obsession with the perfect body has driven young girls to starve themselves to death in a pathological pursuit of perfection for decades. This has been a known and highly publicized crisis for years. Models, actresses and female pop stars have long served as reminders to women that they are not adequate. Girls as young as six or seven have been crash dieting more than ever, in the age of the Internet and “pro-Ana” websites. Young girls and teenage girls are still far more likely to diet than are boys.
A 2010 PBS FRONTLINE documentary, “Outlawing Ana,” detailed the tremendous impact the Internet has had on anorexic girls in France. It’s had the same impact in the United States.
In response to this crisis, female-exclusive rehabilitation centers were created around the country. Despite the rise in anorexia among boys, these clinics continue to deny entry to males.
The continued denial of male victims stems from a belief that assistance should be gender-specific. While there are no studies or figures to support this belief, some centers prefer not to treat men because they may inadvertently remind girls of the trauma they have endured at the hands of fathers, husbands, or male partners. This of course ignores the fact that girls, mothers, women, and lesbian partners can also play a role in the creation and worsening of female anorexia. Men are not always the bad guys.
The consequence of the gender-specific policy has been catastrophic. Of the fifty-eight residential treatment centers listed in the Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness’s 2011-12 guide, only twenty-five admit men.
Warren claimed, “Most men with eating disorders are living with them quietly and painfully. I would guess at least three-quarters of them don’t get any treatment. They’re suffering without help. Boys living in communities where they are denied treatment because of their gender are desperate for health care like never before.”
One boy, interviewed anonymously by GQ, claimed “It takes an incredible amount of balls to ask for help, because it’s thought of as a girl’s disease, and you finally work up the courage and there’s nothing there.”
Drug rehab isn’t gender-exclusive. Neither is rehab for sex addiction. It’s time society dealt with the reality that boys have anorexia too. And it’s time we give these boys some help.
Commentary and Debate Editor