Ambivalent Men? Male Experiences of Eating Disorders

by Dr Russell Delderfield.

When health inequalities abound, someone, somewhere, is always falling by the wayside. In some respects, I feel that eating disorders represent the conditions where men are routinely getting a raw deal (that’s not to say there aren’t many others). The successful vote for the Male Psychology section is an opportunity to highlight the needs of men, and in my case, that means drawing attention to our lack of understanding around the needs of men with eating disorders.

Almost a decade ago, a senior clinician, who is incidentally the only other UK author of a book1 tackling the issue of male eating disorders, affirmed that something was stunting the expansion of our understanding. Referring to the tradition of feminist research, he suggested that this had enriched our knowledge.

This work has involved women sharing experiences in a way that challenges or humanises the information obtained through anonymised clinical, medical research. This type of research has focused on the women’s stories, trying to foreground their voices, rather than those of the professionals involved. As such, what can be gleaned often lies beyond the bounds of what can be known through clinical case reports, assessments, questionnaires or surveys.

It was Morgan’s contention2 that we were suffering from a lack of similar work by, with and for men. In short, we were working into an experiential vacuum. Without knowing what men endured and survived how could we ascertain their medical or psychological needs in their totality? How we could transform existing or design new services to meet those needs?

I’ve attempted to contribute to the growing endeavour of sharing men’s experiences. I asked a small group of men to share their stories with me, and rather than try to map them on to existing medical criteria, I tried to work qualitatively with each story on its own merits, exploring what they had to teach us about our society and culture, and how these in turn impacted on the men’s lives. This resulted in the book Male Eating Disorders: Experiences of Food, Body and Self.

I examine prevalent psych understanding, exploring concepts such as:

  • the part that bullying, trauma, and control have to play
  • the pervasiveness of stigma
  • gender role conflict
  • muscularity-oriented disordered

However, woven into this are ideas from critical men’s studies, drawing on masculinities and embodiment:

  • ‘fugliness’
  • what it means to be a fat man (through bingeing)
  • pro-Anorexia website use
  • male ideals of muscularity versus desire for slenderness
  • compulsive exercise
  • food and exercise configured as crime and punishment
  • the self as a site of battle
  • Men’s desire to pass as ‘normal’.

I also further Matthew Campling’s work on the eating disorder-as-coloniser of the man’s body/self. What we discover is that these men experience ambivalent masculinities.

Last but not least, I am a man with an eating disorder. My work is reflexive and unapologetically interpretive. I am part of our social world, trying to make sense of others’ meaning-making of it. This means that there is a personal element that drives my desire to know more, that feeds the scholarly work.

I do not want to end without a word about the men who got in touch with me. I’m truly thankful to the men who came forward. They are part of a change I’ve seen in the last ten years, where more men are willing to add their voices to a small-but-growing throng of those willing to speak out to help others know they are not alone.

 

About the author

Dr Russell Delderfield

@MaleEDResearch

 

References

1 Morgan, J. F. (2008). The invisible man: A self-help guide for men with eating disorders, compulsive exercise and bigorexia. Routledge.

2 Jones, W., & Morgan, J. (2010). Eating disorders in men: A review of the literature. Journal of public mental health, 9(2), 23-31.

 

 

 

 

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