By Joshua Zitser
CN: Eating disorders
Although years behind girls’ schools, independent boys’ schools are now starting to address the critical problem of male eating disorders.
The epidemic of eating disorders sweeping through Britain’s fee-paying girls’ schools has, in recent years, gained a considerable amount of attention in the British media. According to experts, highly-pressurised environments, alongside the existence of unrealistic beauty standards, are to blame. But a similar crisis can also be seen across the gender divide. Many private boys’ schools are seeing more and more young men suffering under the heat of the hothouse environment. It is believed that up to 30% of those suffering from anorexia nervosa or bulimia could be male, according to a report by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
In addition to anorexia and bulimia, conditions such as ‘binge-eating disorder’ are prevalent. This sees the sufferer compulsively overeating or consuming abnormal amounts of food while feeling unable to stop. It is believed that around 40% of those who display these behaviours are male. Particularly prevalent among men, the lesser well-known ‘muscle dysmorphic disorder’ can be found scattered across the country’s gyms. This sees men viewing themselves as being insufficiently muscular and, consequently, engaging in obsessive compulsive and extremely unhealthy habits. Colloquially known to some as ‘bigorexia’, muscle dysmorphic disorder can lead to excessive exercising, compulsively checking one’s reflection in the mirror and to the abuse of anabolic steroids, supplements and protein shakes.
“These schools are filled with deeply competitive students seeking perfection in all areas of their life.”
The desperate desire to get big by any means appears to be most prominent among young men and frequently sees them using drugs to achieve their body goals. A Home Office crime survey found that steroid abuse has quadrupled among young men in the past year. They also found that the biggest rise in anabolic steroid use was among those aged 16-24 years old, with 19,000 more youngsters taking the Class C drug. Image-conscious men are, more than ever, turning to illegal drugs and other unhealthy practices to help them get leaner and more muscular. Some experts believe that young men are driven towards this sort of damaging behaviour by unrealistic male body ideals in the media. Dr William Rhys Jones, a consultant psychiatrist at the Royal College of Psychiatrist, said: “Objectification and pressure for body perfection is on the rise for young men. There are known risk factors for developing an eating disorder.”
At all-boys’ schools, these pressures are, according to some, often magnified and the pursuit of perfection is, for many, often part-and- parcel of everyday school life. A former student at a top London private school, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “These schools are filled with deeply competitive students seeking perfection in all areas of their life. Be it a galaxy of A*s, a place at Oxford or the perfect six pack, some of these boys will do anything – no matter how unhealthy – to achieve their goals.” He added: “When I was suffering with an eating disorder at school, I noticed that many if my peers were also secretly struggling with what I would call ‘normalised’ eating disorders. Some were gyming three times a day and solely consuming protein shakes but no teachers even batted an eyelid.”
The problem with addressing ‘bigorexia’ at all-boys’ schools is that many of these disordered habits can go under the radar, Overtraining and supplement use are, to some extent, normalised and often confused for healthy behaviour. Sam Thomas, the founder of ‘Men Get Eating Disorders Too’, said: “It’s often hard for school staff to pick up on whether boys are being extremely disciplined or actually just being unhealthy.” His suggestion is that young men require the validation to talk about their body issues openly to effectively address the problem.
Some schools are already starting to do this. St Paul’s School, in south London, is perhaps the leading example of a school approaching male eating disorders with the severity it requires. In November 2016, it became the first independent school to sign the ‘Time to Change’ pledge committing to end the discrimination experienced by people with mental health problems. Senior Management have also recently employed a full-time Strength and Conditioning Coach to ensure that gym habits are healthy and protein supplements are not used by their pupils. Sam Madden, the Head of Wellbeing at St Paul’s, said: “St Paul’s is committed to providing the highest levels of pastoral care to our pupils and as such the school is very aware of the worrying increase in the number of young men living with eating disorders.”
Despite some success stories, some fear that the vast majority of boys’ schools simply aren’t doing enough. “They only care about their reputation, they don’t actually care about the welfare of the boys”, said a former pupil at the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, in Elstree. We contacted several top independent boys’ schools in the U.K. and all but two refused to offer comment on the preventative measures the schools have in place for eating disorders. Could it be that when it comes to ‘bigorexia’, the majority of boys’ schools are overlooking a deeply worrying crisis?