The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.
Content Warning: This guest contribution contains mentions of eating disorders.
“It’s not like he has an eating disorder. He’s not a girl.”
My friend’s look of reproval lingered after the words left his mouth. I had approached him to voice my concerns over the well-being of our mutual friend, who had lost an alarming amount of weight since declaring his intent to achieve “better health” — which, for him, only included shedding “a couple of pounds” — two months prior.
I thought that the change in our mutual friend had become obvious enough to confide in his closest friend. And while he quickly confirmed and validated my observations about this individual’s deteriorating health, he disregarded the idea that such a person could be struggling with an eating disorder because he was a man — likening it to something that only a “certain demographic” could struggle with.
The more I pondered his quick-fire statement, the more I realized that it was rooted in a societal assumption stemming from the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” worldview: eating disorders are for women — and, regardless of gender, femininity — and not for men or other masculine counterparts. And, as was being illuminated through our mutual case, it is an assumption that is incredibly harmful to people who suffer from eating disorders but fall outside of the feminine gender categories. For the physical and mental health of people of all demographics, we must prevent the perpetuation of this widespread stereotype.
As proven in ANT 201: Introduction to Anthropology, the societal myth that there are “men’s brains” and “women’s brains” is simply scientifically incorrect: there are minimal neurological differences corresponding to the gender binary. As popular thinking goes, women — and feminine people in general — place much more emphasis on achieving an ideal beauty standard, which includes thinness, than do their masculine counterparts. Therefore, women are more likely to engage in extreme and unhealthy behaviors (i.e., those symptomatic of eating disorders) to shape their bodies into what is deemed beautiful.
Firstly, it is untrue that a desire for thinness is the sole motivator of developing an eating disorder; an article published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders warns that “weight phobia should not be viewed as critical to the diagnosis of [eating disorders] and could be a culture-bound dimension.” Thus, even if there did exist a distinctly feminine neurobiology — rather than internalized sexism — that caused feminine people to strongly care about being thin, this “gender characteristic” would not fully suffice as the cause for eating disorders being a “woman problem.”
Additionally, as self-described feminist educator Dr. Melissa Fabello explains, our assumed correlation between femininity and eating disorders is likely rooted in “long-standing researcher bias” regarding gender roles and their definitions. The scales utilized to measure gender identity in eating disorder studies are often more rigid than is accurate, associating femininity strictly with womanhood and masculinity strictly with manhood. But one study published in Health Sociology Review reveals that when these gender identity scales are reiterated to allow for greater fluidity in gender roles, any significant correlation between femininity and eating disorder development is dissolved.
Thus, the logical conclusion is that femininity is not, in fact, a risk factor for eating disorders. Yes, it is true that eating disorders are more common in women. However, this is due to the differences in societal beauty standards for men and women (women are expected to be thin) and the pressure with which they are applied to the respective groups (women are more pressured to achieve the ideal), rather than a biological difference between men and women that causes women to be more prone to developing eating disorders. Therefore, eating disorders, as with many other health issues, are not a women- or feminine-only problem: they are a human problem, and to say that a suffering person does not and cannot have an eating disorder because they “aren’t a girl” is wrong and dangerous.
When our friend finally saw a doctor, he was, in his own words, “immediately diagnosed” with anorexia nervosa, a fairly common eating disorder characterized by low weight, food restriction, and body dysmorphia. However, because he was a man — because he was of a gender that, as the thinking goes, does not “get” eating disorders — these symptoms were detrimentally overlooked by his mostly male friends and his family.
Though “he’s not a girl,” he did develop and severely suffer from an eating disorder. As members of a society that values physical and mental health, we must abolish the stereotype that eating disorders are associated with femininity, as this myth excludes men and other entire gender categories from the critical chance to be acknowledged and helped with their suffering.
Maria Karakousis is a first-year from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.