Men often do not seek help for body image or eating disorders because of societal stigma. Not only is mental illness still a taboo topic, but eating disorders specifically are seen as affecting only teenage girls or the overly vain.
Eating Disorders Do Not Discriminate On Gender, Race Or Class
Media objectification of males and females, however, is relatively the same according to researchers from Harvard Medical School. In a study published in Biological Psychology, it was found that for every unrealistically proportioned Barbie doll, there is a G.I Joe doll suggesting an equally unrealistic body image.
The reported cases of men with eating disorders have increased exponentially since the mid 1990s. Of all reported individuals with an eating disorder, 1 in 4 is male, the study found.
A Man’s Life Affected By Anorexia Nervosa
Erik Sjobern, a Bismarck, N.D. native, transferred to Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM) in August 2007. In the years prior, his weight had gone up and down, but never to extremes. “I was on my way to work one day, and I thought I was getting too close to that invisible number on the scale that said I would lose the person I was.”
Throughout his first semester at MSUM his friends became less important, and his need to go to the gym was overwhelming. He regularly skipped class and cancelled plans with friends to run a few extra miles.
“I would always pack a snack to school,” Sjobern said, “But I rarely ate it. It was more of a control thing.” When others would go to lunch he would sit in the student union, read and glance at the granola bar in his bag, proud of and encouraged by his self-control.
In hindsight, all the signs were there, he said. When it became too difficult to hide his admittedly odd eating habits from friends, he stopped eating meals with them. He lied about how often he ate and always had an excuse for not going out. “It’s so backwards, thinking of it now. When I thought I was in the most control, it was controlling me.”
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any compared to all mental illness, and is “increased in those with a late age of onset, long duration of illness, and severe weight loss,” research from Harvard Medical School said. Early detection is essential to recovery, their research shows many individuals repeat treatment a second time. “About 40 percent to 45 percent of anorexics recover completely, 30 percent improve, and 25 percent have a chronic course.”
A False Hope of A Better Life
For Sjobern, losing weight was a way to a better life. Ridiculed in high school for being overweight, he began going to the gym his first year at Bismarck State College in 2003. He lost 40 pounds in three months and another 20 throughout the year, he says proudly. “Then I stopped. I was good.” The opposite sex responded to him more positively when he was thinner, he remembers. Those affirmations, he said, made him never want to be overweight again. Sjobern was 6’3” and 220 pounds.
Thanksgiving break, 2007. He saw his parents for the first time since he had left for college. They knew right away there was a problem, he said. “I always thought my mom was keeping track of my weight by hugging me and feeling my bones.” At home Sjobern continued to avoid meals, using the same excuses he had with his friends. However, it was at this time and with the insistence of a good friend, he was able to confront the harm his poor nutrition had on his life.
Acknowledging The Problem
Believing it wouldn’t hurt to get a second opinion, Sjobern agreed to contact a hospital once he returned to college after the break. “I don’t think I was really ready to give it up. I just kind of wanted to know what was going on with me.”
“It felt like I was looking at that number forever,” he said, reflecting on the courage it took to press send on his mobile. An appointment was made for an initial evaluation at the Sanford Health Eating Disorder and Weight Management Center for early the next year.
When therapy finally began for Sjobern, the prognosis was favorable. They were happy he sought help before symptoms got more serious, he said. “I had an eating disorder. Well, I have an eating disorder. But that was the first time a doctor said I had an eating disorder.” He explains it was like a relief, finally having a name and help for what was going on, though uncertain of what it meant.
Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire
At the beginning of his treatment, one nurse was always seated at the head of the glass table, Sjobern recalls. No sleeves or hooded sweatshirts were permitted during meals (That’s where people like to hide food, he was told).
Surveying the table he would count eight to ten others, all female. Sjobern would look down at his breakfast plate. One piece of toast; one hard-boiled egg; two sausage links; and four ounces of juice. It felt like all too much at once, he said. His hands began to shake as they reached for the juice.
“It’s like walking into a cave and you can’t see light at the other end. And all you can hope for is that once the light behind you fades to black, you’ll be able to see the faintest white in the distance.”
Discharged But Battling
Sjobern was discharged from the Sanford Health Eating Disorder Unit after seven weeks of intensive around-the-clock programming.
Still meeting with a psychologist monthly to track his weight and talk about issues essential to recovery, he battles on. “It’s a process,” he says, reminding himself that the eating disorder behavior didn’t begin overnight and will take time to change.
Now in his fifth year of recovery, a newlywed Erik Sjobern enjoys cooking with his wife, playing tennis with friends, and volunteering with the National Eating Disorder Association for their annual fundraising walk.
About the Writer: Adam Pope is an ED survivor, writer and advocate. His works cover a variety of topics ranging from coping with eating disorders, overcoming addiction, and feminism. He also occasionally writes fiction and actively engages in freelance journalism.
Photography: Semra Sevin Models: Gale Tattersall & Rio tattersall