Eating disorders among youngsters has been in the educational news again recently, with suggestions that help may be available from an unlikely source.
An eating disorder is described by the NHS as “an abnormal attitude towards food that causes someone to change their eating habits and behaviour”. These illnesses are typically understood to include anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating.
According to the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), 2014 saw a marked rise in the number of eating disorder cases being referred to hospital. The biggest increase occurred among young people aged ten to nineteen, with anorexia generally developing around the ages of sixteen to seventeen and bulimia, eighteen to nineteen.
The scale of the issue is massive, dubbed an “epidemic” by child health expert Dr Aric Sigman, who will soon be addressing this in a speech to the HMC Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference professional development programme.
Sue Minto, head of the child helpline ChildLine, has seen calls relating to eating disorders double in the last three years. She commented that, though such disorders are triggered by complex issues:
“The 24/7 nature of social media places huge pressures on our children and young people which in turn can lead to significant emotional issues…society is increasingly bombarded with celebrities and airbrushed images which give an impossible view of what ‘beautiful’ is.”
Other factors believed to contribute to the development of eating disorders include:
- A family history of eating disorders, depression or substance misuse.
- A changing body shape due to puberty.
- Criticism over eating habits, body shape or weight.
- Pressure to be slim for a specific role (for example ballet dancers, models or athletes).
- Certain characteristics, for example, having an obsessive personality, an anxiety disorder, low self-esteem or being a perfectionist.
- Particular experiences, such as sexual or emotional abuse.
- Difficult relationships with family members or friends.
- Stressful situations, for example problems at school or school exams.
Yet while the causes are rarely crystal clear, the gendered nature of these diseases is overwhelmingly so. The ratio of female to male sufferers is 10:1.
But while boys and men may be far less likely to suffer from these conditions, they may have an important part to play in tackling the issue, particularly with regard to school-age girls.
Dr Sigman has dubbed men an “untapped army” in the fight against body dissatisfaction. He believes that where girls may be more likely to encourage eating disorders in the form of peer pressure, men and boys “have a very different and much kinder take on female body fat, sex appeal, eating and weight loss”.
“Knowing what men think can actually serve as an antidote to the prevailing assumptions that feed body dissatisfaction,” he claims.
Though he regards the opinions of men and boys as potentially helpful, he accepts the prevalence of negative body-image messages in the media, both from men and women. Dr Sigman has even labelled television news “damaging”, because female newsreaders are “on a permanent diet”.
Added to this celebrity culture, advertising, peer pressure, the rise of pro-anorexia websites, a growing diet industry and regular debates about standard sizing and unhealthily thin models, the area is something of a minefield.
Not one that men should feel apprehensive about entering though, according to Dr Sigman:
“Today men are in a position to countercheck the prevailing, highly damaging generalisation that female body fat is unattractive and disliked by males.
“This is not replacing one prescriptive view of the ideal female form with another.
“Whether we consider it politically incorrect or not, how men – meaning in this case fathers, brothers, grandfathers and partners – see women’s bodies is a real part of life.”
Of course there is a wealth of different opinions on how to help treat and prevent eating disorders. Dr Sigman’s view is likely to face a great deal of criticism and scrutiny. If effective, encouraging boys and men to promote self-esteem in girls and women is a positive, low-cost approach to tackling this issue. But do girls and women really need another opinion in the already media-saturated body image debate?
What do you think? Do men really hold the key to girls’ self-esteem and body image?