Breaking through the gender stereotype: new resources to help men with eating disorders

While eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating disorder have historically been thought to be “women’s disorders”, over one million men are suffering from these afflictions in relative silence.  My guess is that many more men and boys are struggling every day with an eating disorder than the numbers report.  With stereotypes looming about women feeling pressure to live up to societal beauty standards and using food to cope with stress, trauma, and anxiety, men who experience the very same struggles may be left isolated, feeling shameful and confused.  With the increased numbers of eating disorders around the United States, one positive aspect is illuminated: more education, advocacy, and support is beginning to become available for men struggling with eating disorders.

Beginning March 29th, a new and open support group is starting at the Eating Disorder Foundation.  Running every Thursday from 5:30-7pm, this group is sponsored by the National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders (ANAD) and is FREE and open to men who are struggling with any type of disordered eating or body image struggles.  Facilitators Kate Daigle, MA, NCC and Clinton Nunnally, MA, LPC, are hopeful that this new group will open doors for men to find support in recovery from eating disorders.

What is different about eating disorders in men and women?  Not a whole lot.  In a clip I found produced in Britain to shed light on National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, one of the men talks about how criteria for anorexia nervosa includes amenorrhea (the loss of a female’s monthly cycle) and that he sees this as a gender bias against men who may be dealing with the same disorder.  You can view the clip here:

According to the online eating disorder recovery site Something Fishy,

“The most common element surrounding ALL Eating Disorders, including Eating Disorders in Males, is the inherent presence of a low self esteem”.

Men are dealt with pressure to live up to standards, ideals, and stereotypes, just as women are.  The image of the strong, muscular male underwear model or the skinny, fashionable hipster affect the way that men perceive themselves.  They may be influenced by “what women want” in a mate and conform themselves to fit the desired ideal.  In addition, men are supposed to be “the strong, stoic, protector” — one who doesn’t show or admit to emotions — based on Western standards, and this can create a great deal of pressure to fit all expected roles.  Men, just as women, can control food in order to try to cope with feelings, or can feel out of control with food as a way of expressing underlying struggles.

We still have a ways to go to understanding how we can best support men in their recovery from eating disorders.  I think the first step is admonishing the shame that is often attached to eating disorders.  Shame is released by expressing it, addressing it, and letting it go.  Here are additional resources for men struggling with eating disorders and for their families and loved ones:

Males and Eating Disorders: Research

Eating Disorders in Straight and Gay Men

Men With Eating Disorders Often Overlooked (a Talk of the Nation special audio report)

Men Get Eating Disorders Too (a non-profit to raise awareness about EDs in men)

I am hopeful that with these resources and with research to come, that men will not feel so alone or shameful about struggling with an eating disorder and that they might break the silence and search for treatment.  If you know of any males who might benefit from the free support group please contact Kate Daigle at (720) 340-1443 or the Eating Disorder Foundation.

Divorcing the fat stigma and embracing health, wellness, beauty at ANY size

Everywhere you look, there’s an advertisement to help you lose weight — especially this time of year! Celebrities talk about fasting for days before an awards show and commenting on how “AMAZING their body looks after losing all of that baby weight!!”.  As if that is the most important thing in the world.  Why is everyone so afraid of fat?  We are conditioned to believe that the thinner we are, the happier, the more successful, the richer, and the more popular we will be.  We will have it all.  But what about already having “it all” — no matter how we look?  This perspective is revolutionary in mainstream Westernized culture, and quite controversial at times, pushing against such rigidity about what we “should” look like and “should” do.  Tell me this: does thinness REALLY cause happiness?

I was curious about this question so I asked a few of my acquaintances who are affected by this social pressure.  After thinking for a moment, my subject said: “well, yes, it will make me happier because it will give me more self-confidence.”  I asked another colleague the same question and she said: “no, thinness will not make me happier because my body is balanced at its natural set point; no matter how much I could starve myself or workout, my body will always look this way.  If I decided that I needed to be thin to be happy, and my body was not where I wanted it to be, I would be choosing to make myself miserable.”  In both of these perspectives, I gleamed a similar theme:  confidence in our selves could influence happiness.  Many of us look for happiness by changing the way we look, feeling as if that is something we can control.  And we can, to a certain degree.  But if we are choosing to control how we look and doing so in a way that is not focusing on health and wellness of our bodies as well as our minds, this can lead down a dangerous path to eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder.

I am a huge fan of the philosophy of the Health at Every Size organization (HAES), whose mission “is based on the simple premise that the best way to improve health is to honor your body. It supports people in adopting health habits for the sake of health and well-being (rather than weight control). Health at Every Size encourages:

  • Accepting and respecting the natural diversity of body sizes and shapes.
  • Eating in a flexible manner that values pleasure and honors internal cues of hunger, satiety, and appetite.
  • Finding the joy in moving one’s body and becoming more physically vital.”

Already over 3600 people have signed the HAES pledge to honor and respect their bodies.  Imagine what our world could be like if we chose to love and accept our bodies instead of abuse and control them?

We cannot talk about the fat stigma in the US without discussing the growing problem of obesity in our country.  Statistics show that nearly one third of adults in the US (33.8%) are obese.  The same HAES principles can be applied to those who are obese as can be applied to any other person:  if we choose health and wellness, meaning giving our bodies nutritious and delicious foods and eating in a manner that is mindful and pleasurable, exercising so that our muscles can be strong and active, and finding joy in the beauty of our bodies, then we might have healthier connections to our bodies.  What about embracing terms like health and wellness instead of fat or skinny?

post from the “Dances with Fat” blog written in response to Paula Deen’s recent admission that she has type two Diabetes and those who are criticizing her states:

Public health does not mean public thinness.  It also doesn’t mean being a judgmental busybody who shames or stigmatizes people who don’t look or act like you think they should.  Being for public health means that you are for people having access to the foods that they choose to eat, safe movement options that they enjoy,  and affordable evidence-based medical care.”

There is a movement that has formed to push against the our society’s fear of fat.  We each have our own experiences and opinions about this topic, as it is very close to our hearts and our daily lives.  I invite you to leave a comment, raise your voice, as we need more dialogue to shut out the noise of unhealthy eating and mindsets about food!

Battle hymn of the dedicated parent: a counselor’s perspective

I am sure many of you have heard of the recent memoir written by Amy Chua entitled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  It’s very difficult to avoid the conversations and controversy about the content of this book — which focuses on the parenting style of a Chinese “super-mom”.  Chua, a Harvard Law professor, is the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, and is married to another Harvard law professor, Jed Rubenfeld.  They have two daughters Sophia and Lulu (who were 15 and 13, respectively, at the time the book was written).  Doing research about this topic was a bit overwhelming, as I found dozens of blogs and articles vehemently asserting their opinions about Chua’s parenting style.  Why so much chatter?  Chua writes about raising her daughters to achieve their utmost potential, using rigorous means and strict rules to help them “be the best” according to the Asian standards of parenting in which she was herself raised.  Chua has been criticized for severely limiting her daughters’ social activities (sleepovers, excursions, birthday parties with friends) and in an example that many of the blogs use, she has been chided “for calling her daughter ‘garbage’ in the company of other people because her daughter misbehaved”.  Chua expected that her daugthers “get straight A’s in every subject except for gym and drama”, and rigorously monitored their piano playing, sometimes denying them a bathroom break or a snack until they got it “perfect”.

I am not here to continue the condemnation of Amy Chua, especially since I have not yet read this memoir and feel that I cannot voice my own thoughts on her unique choices until I do.  The New York Times wrote an article about the backlash over the memoir entitled “Retreat of the Tiger Mother”, citing that a part of the book that people tend to overlook is the ending, where Chua admits that many of her parenting strategies did not work and they in turn elicited a rebellion from her youngest daughter Lulu.  I wanted to give a perspective on parenting choices and strategies on the part of a counselor who works with families of all types.  I also wanted to lend a sensitive ear to the cultural aspects of this debate, which is mentioned in several blogs but overlooked in others.

I believe that every parent has the best of intentions for their child and loves him or her unconditionally.  Factors such as economic status, financial resources, location, family support, and culture all impact the way that we raise our young.  To give you persepective on the wide variety of responses I located about this book, National Geographic wrote a post commenting on the ways that real tigers in the wilderness raise their young as compared to the strategies used but this “Tiger mother” in her Asian culture.  Whether we are human or animal, we want our children to succeed.  American culture is known to be “accepting and laid back — almost too allowing” when focusing on the achievements and potential of offspring.  We want them to succeed but to “try their best, whatever that means to them and we will love them no matter what”.  Our individualistic culture contrasts with the collectivistic culture of Asian countries, which puts a strong focus on respect, achievement, and honor.  Achieving to the BEST and BIGGEST potential to honor the family, even if those qualities are not naturally aligned with the child’s personality.  Culture defines all of us, and when it comes to taking care of the most important gift we can give the world — our children — our culture plays a dominating role in dictating what we think is best.

When are cultural expectations too much for a young developing mind?  And an emotional mind?  How does a child of a Chinese family live in American society and balance both cultures?  I believe these questions are defining themes in Amy Chua’s book, and they cause me to reflect on personal and professional experiences I have had with this topic.  Growing up, my best friend was a Chinese girl who was the daughter of two very proud Chinese immigrants.  As her friend, I witnessed firsthand the struggle she experienced to reconcile her desire to please her parents and her wish to live fully and freely in the American culture.  She achieved very highly, pleasing her parents, but it seemed from my perspective that her attempts to please were “never quite enough” and that this impacted her relationships with family and friends.   As a counselor, my role is to treat the relationships in the family with as much respect and honor as I can.  If I were to work with a family such as Amy Chua’s, I would be challenged to consider the Chinese cultural undertones that are the foundation of the family and also to help the younger generation assimilate into the American society in which they were born.

Diversity is one of the most beautiful things about our country.  Mixing cultures together also forces us to focus on what choices we want to make regarding the caretaking of the generations to come, and to consider what messages we want to send them.  I think one of the most insightful things I learned about Chua’s book is that she “is still learning” and I think that this is the ultimate lesson of parenting:  we are all still learning and we all have opportunities to make changes in a new day.