Andrew, Orri’s Specialist Eating Disorder Psychotherapist and Lead of Orri’s Men’s Group for male staff, shares his thoughts on how gender norms have developed over the years. As a result, he highlights how societal expectation is linked with the rise in eating disorders within the male community, and how Orri steps in to change this narrative in treatment.
Historically gender has been split. Men have taken an active position as the creators of reality and the privileged position in society, while women have been pushed into a passive position, demonstrating “the inadequacy of language that reduces to active or passive when what lies beneath is really more complex” (Irigaray, 1985, p. 16). This system can be silencing. Silencing of needs, silencing of desire, silencing of taking up space. In a system of silencing it is often the case that self-esteem is slowly chipped away leaving a sense of unworthiness and seeking value externally.
In a review of the film Tár Suzie Orbach (2023) highlights the social elements of the inner conflicts girls and boys face:
The many internal conflicts of being raised a girl these days – and boy, too – are as costly, limiting and not simply expansive as we may hope… We all need to be heard, to manage the complex multiple inequalities that are structural and internal.
Ideals and norms of masculinity can leave men feeling that it is not ok to express vulnerability or weakness. A sense they must be fit, strong, muscular, stoic, together, independent. Qualities of self, such as weakness, vulnerability, needing others, emotional, empathic, qualities that are traditionally considered feminine can be stigmatised, perpetuating the norm, and leaving boys and men who diverge from the norm with an inner conflict. In transactional systems of schooling and work the inequality and oppression to some extent detaches itself from the gender binary meaning both woman and men feel increasingly silenced or oppressed, with seemingly unsolvable inner conflicts.
Growing up in Northern England, I experienced oppression and bullying at school which led to difficult inner conflict. The softer, traditionally feminine qualities began to feel unacceptable, yet I always knew they were important parts of myself. It wasn’t until I saw a psychotherapist and then underwent psychotherapy training that I began to accept these qualities and value and express them in the world. Before this they lived silently within me and in the silence contributed to a sense of self hatred, loneliness, and longing.
Sometimes inner conflicts, which are often gendered, can lead to solutions involving internal protective mechanisms that promise resolution of these inner conflicts, when it has been impossible to resolve them in the world. An eating disorder is an expression of an attempt consciously or unconsciously to resolve these conflicts:
Anorexia was a distraction. I created my own world, governed by my rules of starvation. Any bad feelings I was suffering became transformed into the need to eat less. I also liked the way that it numbed feelings. I was not so aware of my intense loneliness and longing for human relationships(Hertzmann & Newbigin, 2019, p. 261).
Although this quote applies to an experience of anorexia, a similar related inner world that seeks to use food as a way to solve outer relational and affective conflicts can be seen in binge eating disorder and bulimia. Sweeting et al. (2015, p. 1) highlights that eating disorders for men remain: “underdiagnosed, undertreated and misunderstood”.
There is an increase of men suffering from eating disorders and within the professional community less perception of men’s need for eating disorder treatment (Sonneville & Lipson, 2018).
Orri strives to embed diversity, equity, and inclusion at every level of treatment, including the training of staff, recognising and attempting to deconstruct the elements of inner experience that could inhibit the understanding or ability to listen to a diverse range of clients. In relation to men’s eating disorders this means understanding the inner conflict and their socialisation this can ensure that specific nuances of experience are heard.
Psychotherapy and group psychotherapy at Orri involves witnessing and hearing the unheard, the silenced. This can help to release bottled up emotions that have not been allowed to reach the world. Men who have been socialised into feeling that it is not ok to reach out and express these feelings, perceived as weak, can benefit from being heard by professionals and other clients, male and female, to support changing perspectives of self.
“Psychotherapy and group psychotherapy at Orri involves witnessing and hearing the unheard, the silenced. This can help to release bottled up emotions that have not been allowed to reach the world. Men who have been socialised into feeling that it is not ok to reach out and express these feelings, perceived as weak, can benefit from being heard by professionals and other clients, male and female, to support changing perspectives of self.”
Returning to efforts to deconstruct the active/passive binary and the associated internal conflicts, Lyotard introduces a term passibility (1995, p. 403), “the ability to be weak…to wait for”; Lyotard values passibility as necessary to express the depth of our inner selves.
When working with one’s past wounds at Orri, a man can include the qualities that have traditionally been considered feminine and may have been excluded from one’s identity: a passage to a different kind of relationship with oneself and others. At Orri, the witnessing of pain and vulnerability can be a transformative experience, and this is one of many ways Orri supports men to loosen the grip of an eating disorder, expanding and strengthening what it means to be a man.
Find out more about Orri’s campaign for Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2023, here: https://www.orri-uk.com/eating-disorders-awareness-week/
As always, remember your #BROS.