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Social Media and the Male Eating Disorder Epidemic

by Graham Harrington

 

It takes about three likes on workout focused Tiktoks before you start to notice something unnerving. The majority of fitness based content (known colloquially as gymtock) is positive and educational, but every once in a while you get a peak at the darker side waiting beneath to draw young men in with promises of quick gains and untouchable confidence.

Strange videos advising teenagers on how to be “alpha males” start appearing in your feed while discussions of dangerous supplements and steroids become commonplace, the once funny memes and useful tips subsumed in a toxic atmosphere of hyper-masculinity. The discourse subtly shifts from communal support to utter contempt for anyone less than physically perfect, commenters often including themselves in their hatred.

Men and Eating Disorders

While the societal discourse on eating disorders and body positivity as a whole has vastly improved in recent years, discussion of the particularities facing male sufferers of body dysmorphia related issues is still lacking. In fact, the first male patient was studied nearly a hundred years after the condition had been discovered.

Modern studies have determined that a significant portion of ED sufferers are male, so why has there been such a blindness to it in the medical community? Aside from the general complexities of modern psychiatric medicine, the first and most obvious reason is the stigmatization of any perceived weakness in men.

Male reluctance to admit pain or seek psychiatric help for it is so commonplace it's already become a joke, but men still often face dismissal or mockery when opening up. It’s because of this reluctance to speak on any mental health that many studies are forced to admit that their statistics are likely skewed by the lack of reporting.

Some studies even mentioned how the lack of knowledge present in male communities about mental health further prevents men from even realizing they have a disorder.  Additionally patriarchal norms have turned EDs into something stereotypically portrayed as a feminine issue, a misogynistic misunderstanding of the issue. This sexist framing of the disorder further discourages men from reporting their struggles with it out of fear of being labeled ‘feminine’ and losing their place within the patriarchal hierarchy. 

The Symptoms Can Differ

Finally, symptoms often differ based on one's gender due to the difference in beauty standards and societal roles across the gender spectrum. Men with Anorexia Nervosa often care far less about weight than their female counterparts but remain equally concerned with their shape, aiming for the muscular masculine ideal. In service of this, compulsive exercise seems to serve as the center of symptoms for men with EDs. It is with this understanding that the body-hating, workout obsessed content of the online gym world goes from an unnerving peculiarity to downright horror. If the sheer amount and popularity of that content is anything to go by, the eating disorder epidemic is far worse than anyone realizes.

While far from the only reason for the current ED epidemic, social media plays a powerful role. Through it, millions of young men and women are creating, viewing and sharing ED triggering content worldwide, with not nearly enough health conscious messaging to counter the deluge. Pro-ED accounts on Instagram alone reach more than twenty million minors, according to Fairplay, an advocacy group focused on the online welfare of children. Highly effective content algorithms ensure that engagement with a hashtag or concept is rewarded with more of that same content, funneling children down a rabbit hole as their media environment is shaped further and further into a dangerous echo chamber.

This phenomenon of normalized self harm has proven itself to be quite profitable. Not only does the engagement with triggering content create profit for the media platform it was hosted on, Influencers use their status to hawk dangerous training techniques, unproven and medically unsound diets, and even supplements not approved by the FDA to vulnerable viewers. It can be genuinely hard to sort out the advice and tips given in good faith and those that weren’t.

The Dangers of Social Media for the Man with an Eating Disorder

In some of the worst cases, actual cyberbullying and harassment occurs. Women, minority groups, and the LGBTQ+ community are frequent targets due to the hypermasculine atmosphere serving as a breeding ground for bigotry, but many who speak out against this trend are targeted viciously. Oftentimes, well meaning content creators trying to shed a light on this issue find their inbox full of insults, personal attacks, and death threats.

So, what can be done? As of now, not much. On a personal level it’s important for everyone to educate themselves on ED warning signs, triggering language, and symptoms in order to spot them in loved ones or yourself; but on a societal scale it would take a complete reorientation of how we value appearance and regulations on the kind of content filtering algorithms used by companies like Youtube, Tiktok, or Instagram. The growing awareness around body positivity has made real progress, but we are still a long way from seeing the depths of this crisis and its end.

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Graham Harrington is a Senior at Denison University with a Creative Writing Major and Communications Minor. After winning an award in the annual Denison Pod-A-Thon podcast competition, Graham found his passion for journalistic writing and uses it to advocate for mental health awareness, body positivity, and transparency for patients and consumers. 

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Why is Diversity in Medicine So Important?

by Michelle Powell

 

Diversity in the healthcare system has a complicated history. From surgical experimentations performed on African-American women without anesthesia to medical devices, specifically, being created for African Americans, the medical field has become, unknowingly, racist. This not only impacts African Americans but minority races and religions that feel targeted based on their person.

 

Why is it a problem?

During my undergraduate years, I remember reading a text for a class that described how African Americans were believed to have a decreased pain tolerance than caucasian people. Realistically, it is not true, but I was horrified to read that this false belief has been held strongly in the past and even been mentioned in medical school textbooks. While it is not the fault of the private and public institutions that educate young people, racism is deep-rooted in America’s social, political, and economic structures, as Harvard Health mentions. Because of this, it is hard to steer clear of a problem that has become a part of society itself and to realize its impacts.

 

As America has become diverse and understood its past mistakes, they have comprehended why it is not okay to treat patients unequally. Doctors, at the beginning of their careers, take an oath to treat their patients equally. While this is acceptable to live and work by, it still does not take care of the implicit bias or racism that occurs every day in doctor’s offices or hospitals. Minorities are known for receiving a decreased amount of “technological and surgical procedures and routine health care preventive service”, as was reported by Stanford Medical.  Minorities, will then not be able to gain the appropriate help they deserve and instead. be pushed aside because their doctors do not believe their problem is substantial or serious enough. This causes many people to become vulnerable and their undiagnosed health situations to worsen.

 

Developing Distrust

On the other hand, patients who are denied their appropriate health care may develop distrust in their doctors and the medical system. They, moreover, may look towards unconventional healthcare methods that may worsen their conditions and, in the end, put their lives at risk. As a future physician, I do not desire for any of my future patients to receive unfamiliar health procedures from an unlicensed physician or to put them in harm’s way.

 

So How Do We Solve the Problem of Racism?

I believe racism should be the first and foremost concern of physicians, nurses, and other providers because they can control their biases and actions towards their patients. Most importantly, medical personnel need to start practicing and modeling tolerance, respect, open-mindedness, and peace. Change starts with those that desire and have a will for it, and I believe the medical field is no exception. Another way to prevent racism is to encourage young people and minorities who have a desire to enter the medical professions to pursue it. By helping minorities and educating future generations on diversity and racism, they can help others who make mistakes and make their patients feel more confident going into their doctor’s office. Minority physicians are more likely to care for minorities, the poor, and uninsured persons additionally in underserved communities. By this, they can increase health care for them too.

As a minority and future physician, I dream that every minority will be able to feel confident and comfortable in any healthcare setting whatever their racial, ethnic, religious, etc. background. I am blessed to not have experienced racism in a healthcare setting and want my future patients to have a similar experience.

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Michelle Powell is an undergraduate student at Michigan State University majoring in Human Biology with plans to become a physician or PA. She is f0cused o writing stories that raise questions about the fairness in accessing the healthcare delivery system.

The Month's Featured Video

Media personality Taylor Lumpkin interviews Alice Bast, the Founder and Executive Director of Beyond Celiac, a nonprofit organization that supports patients with celiac disease. Alice discusses how patients can cope with the disease. May is Celiac Awareness Month.

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