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The rising tide of male eating disorders

By Tasman Bain - posted Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Male body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, ranging from anorexia nervosa to compulsive dieting, are increasing across the world, and Australia is leading this rising tide.

In Britain, one in five children and one in twenty adults diagnosed with anorexia is male while in Canada males make up 17 per cent of sufferers. Horrifically, for Australia one in four children and one in ten adults with anorexia is male, which has actually doubled in the past decade. Research from the Butterfly Foundation found that almost one in three male Year 9 students uses fasting, skipping meals, diet pills, vomiting, laxatives and smoking cigarettes as weight loss and control methods.

These are all conservative estimates because it is difficult to gather accurate data because of the stigma of having a “female disorder” and consequent ignorance and under-diagnosis surrounding it. In 2009 Christine Morgan, the Chief Executive of the Butterfly Foundation said that in terms of male eating disorders “In Australia, we are one of the worst in the world. When it starts as young as Year 9, you are getting very, very disturbing patterns coming through.” Despite all this, male eating disorders are the elephant in the room – and it is an increasingly larger elephant representing an increasingly skinnier population of young men.


Males are not immune from eating disorders and there is a social onus being placed on men to be proportionately as thin as popular culture was demanding of women a decade ago. Indeed, body dissatisfaction is not confined to women and men are being judged on physical appearance just as much as women have been and continually are. The rise of skinny jeans, Emo chic and Indie fashion all of which involve bony faces, sinewy legs and emaciated chests are being proliferated in magazines, television shows, advertisements and music.

For men, the cultural paradigm of muscle and strength has been replaced with bone and waifish gaunt bodies. The emaciated figures of David Bowie, Kurt Cobain and Daniel Johns are fast becoming the norm for male models and musicians and in turn teenage boys. David Sciola, technically an underweight Australian model weighing at 76 kilograms and 188 centimetres in height, said that he was considered too big for the European catwalks.

This fashion is percolating into the mainstream media and filtering down to suburbia. The existence of male pro-anorexia websites are symptoms of the increases of male anorexia, with male “thinspiration” showcasing emaciated thin male models reflecting the cultural change of the idealised male figure. A dangerous precedent is being set and this fashion trend for males is causing otherwise healthy teenage boys to partake in fasting, dieting and other weight loss and control methods to reach the idealised thinness they see.

The Butterfly Foundation has been increasingly receiving phone calls and emails from young men in their teens to early 20s. Christine Morgan said “they are calls sort of indicating that these young guys are getting more involved with what I would call significant disordered eating, self-harm behaviours, high risk behaviours, excessive exercise, purging and those types of behaviours which very much go with anorexic and bulimic activity”. Nonetheless, there has been and is a profound social stigma with talking about male eating disorders. It seems that everyone is more than willing to recognise, publicise, and care for the girls and women with eating disorders, and so we should too, but this is at the profound neglect of males with eating disorders.

It is almost the norm to talk about female eating disorders and everyone expects high fashion models and various celebrities to succumb to anorexia. Pop culture magazines are full of articles about the recovery process of a recently publicised anorexic actress. Television morning shows are full of interviews with female celebrities who have just written a book about their eating disorder woes. GPs, parents, teachers, and coaches all realise the seriousness of, and can recognise the signs, of Anorexia Nervosa in young women.

Eating disorder media campaigns to raise awareness tend to have an inherent female bias, with television ads having skinny young women in front of mirrors or teenage school girls being bullied about their weight. Yet despite a growing demographic there is hardly any media attention or government policy focused at males with eating disorders. There is a major ignorance and taboo existing around male eating disorders: GPs, parents, teachers, and coaches are not aware of it and the sufferers are reluctant to come forward for treatment. It is a sad day when otherwise normally healthy teenagers think that they are too fat or should go on a diet to lose some weight and end up developing one of the most serious mental illnesses because there cannot talk to someone about their body dissatisfaction.


There is a deficit of proper specialist services across Australia. At the primary service level of healthcare, GPs are in the dark when it comes to male eating disorders. Public hospitals can only do so much. Many are being overwhelmed by admissions and are largely inadequate to accommodate males with eating disorders, let alone teenage boys with eating disorders. Thus most families have to turn to private specialist clinics, which are hardly the most economical choices.

The most the Federal Government has done to tackle this rising tide was in 2009 to set up the National Advisory Group on Body Image and to allocate $125,000 to establish a voluntary code of conduct for the fashion and media industries. Evidently, this is hardly enough to tackle an illness that has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

Just as eating disorders for females have become a recognised and publicised serious issue, there is a fundamental imperative to address the issue of male eating disorders. As a male who was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa at 14 years old, I fully know the risks of not dealing with this rising tide. 

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About the Author

Tasman Bain is a social sciences student at the University of Queensland. He is an Advisor to the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, a Policy Officer with the Left Right Think-Tank

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