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Understanding How Men with Eating Disorders Experience Body Image: Insights from Research



Around 1 in 4 people with eating disorders are men. As part of our Eating Disorders Awareness Week blog series, Dr Andreas Paphiti continues the momentum of last year's EDAW campaign by sharing some insights from a recent study which explored how men with diagnosed eating disorders experienced body image.


 

Eating disorders describe how people may struggle with their eating and body image. While they are often associated with women, men also struggle with eating disorders; 10–25% of affected individuals. Unfortunately, research has historically focused less on men’s experiences. Our understanding of how men experience eating disorders remains limited. Men and women have been shown to have some differences in how they experience eating disorders, but research has found with body image they may differ more greatly. Research suggests that men may wish to have a more muscular body, rather than thin body in comparison to women. However, most of this research has been done with men without eating disorders. Body image plays a crucial role in these disorders, but research gaps persist and more research has been identified to be needed to understand body image among men with diagnosed eating disorders. Indeed, last year men were the focus of Eating Disorders Awareness Week.


A study by Dr Andreas Paphiti, Dr Emily Newman and Dr Paula Collin, based at The University of Edinburgh and NHS Tayside, explored how men with diagnosed eating disorders experience body image. Researchers recruited ten men with diagnosed eating disorders from four Scottish NHS specialist eating disorder services. These men participated in interviews, either face-to-face or remotely. The study used a method called Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) which helps develop detailed understandings of people’s individual and shared experiences. Researchers delved into each interview, exploring how participants perceived their body image in the context of their eating disorders.


It was found that participants experienced body image in various ways; some focused on themselves, but was also experienced relating to interactions with others and societal pressures. Looking at their experiences, one way that body image was experienced was that participants experienced body image personally, such as being critical towards their bodies and having particular goals for how they wanted their bodies to look. Body image was also experienced in relation to other people and relationships, such as having concerns others may not like or love them because of their bodies. Their sense of body image was also impacted by wider factors, such as by the media and attitudes society holds. Their voices contribute to a richer understanding of men’s body image. Although the study findings are specific to the ten people who participated, the findings can still help future research and clinical practice by considering their perspectives.


One useful topic for future research would be to investigate the interpersonal aspects of body image that the study revealed, which were not anticipated by previous research. In clinical practice, clinicians should consider the unique nuances of men’s body image when assessing and treating eating disorders. When interpersonal body image issues arise for men, clinicians can incorporate them into recommended psychological treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and the Maudsley model for anorexia nervosa (MANTRA). For men with significant interpersonal concerns, exploring therapies focusing on relationships, such as interpersonal psychotherapy or schema therapy may be helpful. Compassion-focused therapy may also be beneficial for those struggling with shame and self-criticism. In summary, personalised approaches that consider individual experiences are important for supporting men with eating disorders.


It is hoped that more research will follow to understand how men with eating disorders experience body image, as well as understanding their experience of eating disorders more broadly. If you would like to find out more about the study, you can access the paper via the following link: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/10608265231225400. 


 

Dr Andreas Paphiti is a clinical psychologist who recently completed his Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at The University of Edinburgh and works at a National Health Service specialist adult eating disorder service. His clinical and research interests include eating disorders, body image, psychological therapy and interpersonal relationships. 

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