Eating Disorders: The Demographic

As part of our series on eating disorders, I wanted to examine the prevalent view of eating disorders- especially anorexia and bulimia- as a “White girl” problem. It is often forgotten that it isn’t just teenage girls who suffer from EDs; they also occur in older women, men and children, as well as the oft-ignored ethnic minorities.

You might be wondering why, if such disorders occur in other social groups, we rarely hear of any cases but those of young women. It is true that around 90% of anorexia sufferers are female- a large majority. However, this means that 10% of sufferers are male- not an insignificant statistic. It is also true that the reason for such a huge discrepancy could actually be due not to the true numbers, but to the fact that having an eating disorder such as anorexia is seen as “not manly”. This negative pressure from society could lead to a lack of men seeking help, even if they themselves suspect they have an eating disorder.

The NHS released new data in April 2012 which stated that there has been a 16% increase in males hospitalised for the treatment of eating disorders. Eating disorder charity Beat  estimates there are 1.6 million people in the UK with an eating disorder, and that around a fifth of these are men. Over the last ten years, the NHS has seen a 66% increase in the number of men admitted to hospital with an eating disorder. These are rapidly rising statistics which can’t be ignored- so why does such a large proportion of the population think it’s “weird” or “impossible” for a man to suffer from an ED of some kind?

One of the most prominent examples of a male with an eating disorder is Jeremy Gillitzer (pictured above). He was a male model with considerable muscle and bulk- healthy, and by no means fat. However, he struggled with an eating disorder which caused him to drop to 88lbs through excessive exercise and calorie restriction. His own blog details his struggle, and you can find it here. Sadly, he never recovered- and at the time of his death at age 38, he weighed just 66lbs. Eating disorders in men are no joke. They’re just as lethal as those in young women.

What is perhaps even more frightening than the prevalence of EDs in men, is the occurrence in children. The average “starting age” for an eating disorder has fallen from 13-17 to 9-12. It seems that not only eating disorders themselves but an unhealthy body image is occurring earlier and earlier in life. 51% of 9-10 year old girls feel better if they’re on a diet. 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls would like to be thinner. Time Magazine reported that 80% of all children have been on some sort of diet before they’re in 4th grade. 81% of 10 year old girls are scared of being fat. There are some serious problems which need to be addressed in a society in which 51% of 9/10 year olds are happier when they’re on a diet. It is true that many developed countries have problems with obesity- especially Britain and America. However, instead of an attempt to foster a healthy attitude towards food and nutrition, we put pressure on children not to get fat without teaching them how to do it safely- causing alarming levels of disordered eating habits.

Although it is hard to comment on the prevalence of EDs in ethnic minority groups, it is clear that anorexia etc. are still thought of as primarily “White” disorders. There are very few statistics for those who identify as ethnic or racial minorities- because the studies just haven’t been done (as evidenced by this university paper). If you type “girl with anorexia” into Google images, there is one API woman and one Black woman, out of 43 images. All others are White. The above paper itself states “exact statistics of the prevalence of eating disorders among minority and ethnic minority women are unavailable mainly because little research has been done in this area…” but also that “there has been increasing evidence that eating disorders are occurring in racial minorities and ethnic minorities in increasing numbers”. It seems frightening that there is such a dearth of research and evidence in this area when- as with essentially every group in society- there seems to be a significant increase in the occurrence of EDs of all kinds.

This was an important article to write for me, because I sometimes stumble upon ED statistics for these forgotten areas of society and marvel at them. “Men get eating disorders? Kids go on extreme diets?” The answer is yes. They do. And it’s important not to forget this- because if a child, or a guy, or a non-White person approaches someone about their eating disorder, the knee-jerk reaction shouldn’t be “You can’t have an eating disorder, you’re [insert stereotype here]”. It’s important to accept that any person of any age can develop an ED- and you should support them no matter what their background is.



Image Credit: Technorati

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