As we enter Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2016, I reflect on the last three years I(Brian) and many others have been involved with the movement to bring more attention to the stigma males face in dealing with eating disorder recovery and awareness.
I know that stigma well. I began restricting as a Freshman at Penn State University in 1979. I quickly transitioned to bulimia. It would take over my life and become so ingrained in my identity that I would not go into recovery over for two decades.
In 1979, there was not much awareness for either sex. Karen Carpenter had not yet passed away from complications relating to anorexia bringing the disorder into the pre-digital national spotlight. Bulimia had only been a clinical diagnosis for a few years. Even if I had any self-awareness of my problem as I obsessively weighed myself multiple times day the campus infirmary, what would I have done with that knowledge?
As a eating disorder practitioner treating males, Dr. Brad Zehring, also sees the issue in his practice.
“The males that I have in my practice who are impacted with these disorders rarely are up front with their issues. Sometimes they don’t even have insight into their behaviors. Once I begin to explore their behaviors and their thoughts behind their behaviors, I am able to help them connect dots and help give them insight into abnormal behaviors that they have made normal, and have always thought were normal”
Dr. Zehring’s observation hits home with me. I did not go public with my disorder until 2008, close to a year after I began recovery. Why? Even in the age of the internet when I could have simply done a google search to see I was not alone, I was terrified. Terrified of confirming my loneliness and shame. Ignorance was bliss and crucial to my daily survival. Even in therapy when I was told that other males do struggle, I did not believe it. The stigma was that overpowering.
Fast forward to Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2016. While we have great organizations out there such as The National Association For Men With Eating Disorders(NAMED) and Men Get Eating Disorders Too” who are working hard to break the stigma, advocacy still often feels like wading through quicksand. As I slog through it, I ask often ask myself these questions:
Why do major organizations who are supposed to speak equally for all, seem to pay only passing mention of the male experience as if we are a mandatory afterthought to mollify the marginalized?
Why do some treatment centers still treat only females?
Why do some treatment centers who treat females and males, still use female biased methodology to address unique male issues?
Why is treatment marketing for the most part geared towards females?
Why do major conferences like NEDA and others not have more substantial tracks for males and other marginalized groups?
Here are some of the answers I see. Outdated females biased science is still being used at early touch-points in treatment before it gets to true eating disorder practitioners. Do we really still need to point out that men do not get menstrual periods so that might not be a good gauge of whether a males has an eating disorder?
What about treatment and conferences? Females pay the bills for beds, tickets and booths. Probably in fundraising as well. From a marketing and practical standpoint, I get that. You have to stay in business or everyone loses. Don’t we however, at some point need to break that cycle with boldness, even if it means a little less revenue. A few less tickets sold. Maybe some male specific marketing? Maybe a bed stays empty so a male can get treatment?
We must do more educating the population that these disorders do not discriminate. It doesn’t matter the race, socio-economic status, religion, or if you are male or female. We believe when we begin including males in every discussion we will begin to lessen the shame and welcome a conversation that has not been happening. A conversation where we can see boys and men where they are, acknowledge their struggle, and provide companionship and treatment along their journey.
We need major organizations like NEDA, Treatment Centers, and others to acknowledge this issue and come to the table to discuss solutions. We need an institutional, inclusive voice comprised of all those who want to see everyone empowered to get treatment and have equal access to that treatment.
Advocates can talk, tweet and and blog all day, but unless there is an “institutional embrace” of the issue beyond, “yes, we agree” the voices are not amplified. A segment on Dr. Oz is not going to break the stigma that keeps so many marginalized in silence. If we can all come together, maybe one-day it will not be male eating disorders, females eating disorders, gay eating disorders, transgender eating disorders an so on. It will just be… “Eating Disorders” Let’s start now.
Brian Cuban( Advocate And Eating Disorder Survivor)
Dr. Bradly Zehring D.O