Earlier this year, actor Christopher Eccleston became the latest high-profile man to speak out on the issue of anorexia, opening up about his decades-long battle with the condition in his new autobiography. ‘Many times I’ve wanted to reveal that I’m a lifelong anorexic and dysmorphic,’ the 55-year-old writes in I Love the Bones of You. ‘I never have. I always thought of it as a filthy secret, because I’m northern, because I’m male and because I’m working class.’
The number of adult men admitted to hospital with an eating disorder is rising, showing a particularly sharp jump in midlife men aged between 41 and 60. In the UK alone, men now make up about one in 10 of those diagnosed with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, once considered the preserve of teenage girls and housewives.
[Don't ignore the symptoms: a men’s health guide for every age group]
Eccleston suggests his revelation might come as a surprise to fans of Doctor Who, many of whom remember him as a perfectly healthy-looking Time Lord in 2005. ‘The illness [was] still raging within me as the Doctor,’ he writes. ‘People love the way I look in that series, but I was very ill. The reward for that illness was the part. And therein lies the perpetuation of the whole sorry situation.’
But male anorexia does not always lead to visible weight loss, says Dr Victor Thompson, a clinical sports psychologist. ‘You can’t always tell just by looking at somebody, particularly if they’re always a bit thin. You can detect some weight loss, perhaps, but you can also start to notice behavioural changes, too – are they not eating in front of you? Are they making excuses? Are they making quite unusual food choices – lots of celery, vegetables, no protein or fat?’
Dr Thompson says that patients with anorexia or bulimia feel they have lost control over an aspect of their lives – an affliction as acute for men as it is for women. ‘It might sound crazy in hindsight, when it gets extreme, but initially when you start going to the gym or dieting you see results, and that can be very reinforcing.’
Some experts say men have always suffered eating disorders. Now, due to a shift in attitudes, they’re just more comfortable going to the doctor for a diagnosis.
Samuel Pollen, whose novel The Year I Didn’t Eat, was inspired by his own experience of having anorexia as a 12-year-old, says the old stereotype of a ‘teenage girl throwing up after ballet’ is losing its hold, and the public now understand people with anorexia and bulimia come in many shapes and sizes. But he also blames our increasingly fitness-obsessed society in the age of Instagram: ‘You always had bodybuilders who ate raw eggs, but now half the people in my office drink protein shakes.
‘We worry about what we eat... there are positive sides to that, but there also can be negative sides if you’re the sort of person who absorbs rules and tries to perfect everything.’
The Daily Telegraph