The following article contains opinions from the author who has been a counselor for 14 years and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of NewsBreak or Particle Media.
For decades, parents and children have had to deal with body image issues, including anorexia and bulimia nervosa. While these issues typically arise in adolescence, adults can experience them after puberty, even having the first episode in their 30s or 40s.
These ailments usually have a foundation in childhood: an overbearing parent trying to get the child to lose weight for sports, pageants, or just for aesthetic reasons; a parent that has an illness themselves and unknowingly encourages it in their child; older teens with the pressure to be “skinny” or “ripped” to be popular; and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Society has historically affiliated anorexia and bulimia with girls, mostly because females are held to a more idiotic standard, such as needing to look like a Barbie doll or the model of the month. But these days, boys are being affected more than ever, especially athletes.
It is easier for guys to stay fit during sports season, but it’s common for some weight gain when the daily fitness regimen stops. Some boys are hyper-aware of the extra pounds they carry around during off-season, and so they are always trying to lose weight or are just unhappy with the way they look, even though their appearance may have barely changed.
This warped sense of body image can lead to anorexia and bulimia, and it may be hidden under the guise of “getting fit.” The sufferer may look in the mirror and see “fat thighs,” the general “flabby muscles,” or a “fat tummy,” which would prevent getting the sought-after “six-pack.” This doesn’t happen on purpose; the person in question honestly views his body in this way, even though reality is different.
Just like girls are taught to be thin and lovely to avoid body shaming, boys deal with pressure to be bigger, stronger, and more masculine to avoid being called names or shamed for their appearance. Boys tend to worry about getting muscular, thus increasing their protein intake, yet they want to also stay lean. This presents an almost impossible goal. They may go to extreme methods such as “dry scooping,” which involves swallowing at least a scoop of protein powder, dry from the can. Experts agree that eating disorders in males are underdiagnosed. What boy wants to go to the doctor about these “girly” problems?
So, what are the differences between the different eating disorders? What do they look like in boys? And what can you do about it?
Anorexia Nervosa occurs when the subject feels that he is noticeably overweight, despite what the mirror, the scale, and the doctors say. Most people with anorexia barely eat and may exercise 12+ hours per day. In females, this can halt the menstrual cycle, and both sexes may grow short, fuzzy hair all over their bodies, called lanugo, that functions to keep the too-thin body warm. Anorexia is a killer if not properly treated. The lack of nutrition and excess exercise can shut down organs until the subject actually dies from malnutrition and/or starvation.
The main difference between the sexes is the initial motivation for the problem. Girls want to be thin and attractive; boys want to be “buff” and muscular. So, while females may spend hours on the elliptical machine, boys may spend an excess of time lifting weights.
Bulimia Nervosa is similar to anorexia in the fact that the subject sees his body as “not right.” However, to try to control weight gain, instead of starving and working out, he eats and oftentimes overeats, believing that if he just throws up the food afterward, it will help him lose weight. Some people with bulimia also abuse laxatives to get rid of unwanted calories. Both methods can get dangerous, as frequent vomiting can damage the stomach, esophagus, and teeth. Frequent use of laxatives can damage all of the digestive organs. However, these methods don’t work well because the body uses whatever time it can get to absorb calories. Most people with bulimia look “normal” or maybe a little overweight.
If you, your child, or someone you know popped into your head while reading this, there is good news. People can and do recover from these illnesses.
While many kids with anorexia or bulimia won’t want help at first, a parent, a close friend, or a caregiver can start a conversation. Use no judgment – just listen. If he’s willing to open up a bit, explain what you’ve observed and that you just want to help. That’s step one. The next step is getting him to a doctor for evaluation and, if needed, to a therapist that can help him understand where his issues stemmed from, how they affect his health, and what he can do about it.
These issues are generally emotional, not physical, and have everything to do with the need to feel in control. Let him take some control now, with you as his co-pilot!
To find a therapist near you, visit https://www.psychologytoday.com/us.