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By VALERIE SCHULTZ, Contributing columnist
What I know about raising boys into men would not fill a book. It would hardly cover this page. As the mother of four daughters, I have no experience with the mothering of boys. I did grow up with brothers and male cousins, and I have eight nephews, and of course the man I married used to be a boy. But I confess that, in the midst of a family of mainly women, boys can seem like an alien species.
So a report on the radio recently regarding the topic of boys who suffer from eating disorders surprised me. I am admitting to sexism, as I'm sorry to say that it never occurred to me that boys might battle the demons of bulimia or anorexia as mightily as girls do.
Eating disorders usually seem to be portrayed as feminine. Having been a high school teacher and a youth minister, and since those four daughters of mine have a lot of friends, I have seen the devastation of these illnesses up close. Pre-teen and teenage girls, as well as twenty-something young women, can be terribly body-conscious, and the society in which we live does nothing to discourage an over-emphasis on physical appearance. We women are perpetually displeased with our faces, our figures and our weight. Reasonably fit females can be heard calling themselves fat, blobby, disgusting, obese. Thin is in; thin is beautiful; thin is on the fashion runways and in the movies. For females in America, there is no such thing as "too thin." It's just that some of us go too far in the quest for the skeletal, and we end up making ourselves physically ill, not to mention emotionally ill.
But boys? I thought boys were unaffected by all that. I thought boys were immune. I know they are different. I have noticed over the years that the parents of boys seem to spend more time in emergency rooms, getting their sons' faces stitched and their broken bones set. I could generalize and say that boys have more explosive ways of communicating, while girls hold onto grudges, thus creating more elaborate drama.
Friends and family who have both sons and daughters say that there are differences beyond the physical, although we could argue extensively over how much of the way we raise boys and girls is cultural and how much is innate.
The boy in the report I heard said he started binge eating at the age of 10. Ten! Food somehow made him feel better about the difficulties he was experiencing in his life, and he began to overeat.
Because he'd always been chubby and was teased at school for it, he felt guilty about overeating. But he couldn't stop. So he learned to purge, making himself vomit by sticking his fingers down his throat. His mother just thought that growing boys ate a lot, but says she possibly would not have brushed off the amounts of food disappearing from the kitchen so easily if he had been a girl. The boy's health deteriorated to the point that he was frequently sent home sick from school, and he was finally diagnosed with bulimia.
Approximately 10 million American males suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Eating disorders among men have increased rapidly since the early 1980s, a time that saw the rise of physically flawless, shirtless men in advertising and movies. Boys, it turns out, are also influenced by the desire to have the perfect body, although rather than longing to be thin, they seek to be chiseled and muscular, like the unclothed models for Abercrombie & Fitch.
For boys and girls, eating disorders often arise in response to stress, especially in those who are perfectionists, or prone to anxiety or depression, or who exhibit obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
The problem for boys is that treatment programs are often geared to helping girls. Even the available public information about eating disorders tends to target females, which can make males feel even more isolated, as each boy who is affected may believe that he is the only male who has ever hidden this terrible secret.
Nationwide, there is a need for treatment programs that speak to the male experience of eating disorders. Sometimes just knowing that other people know exactly what one is going through is the first step on a path of healing.
Having known girls whose bodies have been ravaged and whose lives have been taken over by eating disorders, I find my heart breaking for boys who are similarly affected. I like to think that youth is a sweet and innocent and problem-free time of life, but too often the opposite is true. We adults must continually strive to help our young people, boys and girls alike, navigate their way out of these very troubled waters.