Eating disorders have traditionally been seen as a female-centred issue, but it’s estimated up to a quarter of people who suffer are male – and this could be an underrepresentation. The stigma around eating disorders, particularly among men, means many go undiagnosed.
30-year-old Samuel Pollen developed anorexia when he was 12 years old – a fraught time, he says, made even more difficult due to the lack of awareness that men could have eating disorders. He has since written a book, ‘The Year I Didn’t Eat’, which follows the story of 14-year-old Max navigating the complexities of growing up with an eating disorder.
A lot may have changed in the 15 years since Pollen had anorexia, but some boys are still facing similar challenges today. We spoke to the author about his debut book, and the things he wants other people to know about growing up with an eating disorder as a man.
The experience can be different for boys and girls. That’s not to say it’s better or worse, it’s just the pressures on men are different, says Pollen. “I wasn’t reading magazines that were full of people Photoshopped to look thin or things like that,” he explains. One of the biggest differences, he says, is that people don’t tend to look out for eating disorder symptoms in young men. “A lot of people around me said they didn’t have a clue I had an eating disorder. To me that’s bonkers because I was very visibly thin. If you’re a boy, there’s less emphasis on that – people aren’t talking about weight day-to-day.”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what causes eating disorders. “I was quite an anxious kid,” Pollen explains. “I did well academically and pushed myself hard.” He believes he fitted the “traditional model” of someone with an eating disorder, who invents “pressures that don’t really exist” around them – then looks for a way to control them. Beat acknowledges that eating disorders are complex and there is no single reason why someone might develop one. However, factors that could contribute include genetic, psychological, environmental, social and biological influences.
Stereotypes around eating disorders are being broken down... slowly. Some people didn’t even believe men could get eating disorders when Pollen was growing up. “We’ve been through a bit of a process as a society over the past 10 years – there’s been destigmatisation but also recognition that this is even a thing,” he explains. “Our view of eating disorders is so gendered and stereotyped. We characterise eating disorders as something that happens to girls of a particular age, but actually that’s a pretty small minority. There are pensioners with eating disorders, too.”
Recognition is important because it leads to early intervention. “Eating disorders fit in this weird space within mental health problems as the actual physical thing you’re going through can kill you, because you’re not eating enough,” Pollen says. Awareness around eating disorders can help save lives, and is the reason why early intervention is important. It was only when Pollen developed flu that his family recognised something was wrong. “I think they probably hadn’t clocked how much weight I’d lost and how ill I was,” he says. “I wasn’t well enough to walk upstairs to bed and I wasn’t well enough to be taken to hospital.” Pollen’s parents called a doctor out, who referred him to CAMHS – they said if he was to have fallen down in the street, be would’ve been admitted to hospital for malnutrition.
Male banter can be damaging for those who suffer. Terms that are harmlessly thrown around the school or gym locker room can have damaging repercussions for those with a mental illness – yet people aren’t necessarily aware of this. “Something I remember very vividly is the word ‘fat’, like being called a ‘fat bastard’ when you’re getting changed at lunch,” Pollen explains. “It was an insult that was thrown around without any particular meaning. I remember I was called ‘fat’ when I was very thin. Given the way I was and that I had this mental health problem, it had a huge impact on me. But it was a term that people had casually tossed about.”
Maintaining a sense of normality can be important on the road to recovery. Pollen didn’t explicitly speak to his friends about his eating disorder diagnosis, but they were there for him when he returned to school after taking time off. They would invite him to their homes to play video games, and he’d sit with them at lunch. He recognises that this, in addition to having a doctor – “an authority figure” – telling him he was not well, played an important part in him recognising there was a problem and focusing on getting better.
Recovery is possible. After Pollen was diagnosed with anorexia aged 12, he underwent outpatient treatment for a year before being discharged. The one thing he wants people to take away during Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which runs from 25 February to 3 March, is that people can recover fully from them.
“It’s a tricky thing,” he acknowledges, as lots of people struggle for years and even decades. “But I remember when I was in treatment my psychologist said to me that I could recover, and I just thought that was unimaginable. But I did. I think believing it’s possible is an important thing when you’re going through it.”
The Year I Didn’t Eat is available to buy for £7.99 from 1 March 2019.
Useful websites and helplines:
Samaritans, open 24 hours a day, on 08457 90 90 90
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393