What it is like to be a man with an eating disorder?

Too often, help and discussion is targeted only at women.

I still remember, vividly, the time I realised I had an eating disorder. I was in the toilet of an east London beerhouse, whose German speciality is serving giant tankards and portions of meat that look like a whole family of pigs on your table. Realising I couldn’t make myself sick, I had broken down in tears. That’s when it hit me, after a year of my weight rapidly decreasing and erratic behaviour. Collapsing into a ball after going for a run - that was just being naturally tired. Missing out lunch because I knew I'd be eating with my parents in the evening - well that was just good sense.

I first questioned what male identity is when I compared my experience to that of women with eating disorders. In some aspects, the affliction is not gender-specific. To have an eating disorder is to feel utterly pathetic while bizarrely feeling a sense of power. From the moment you put your hands down your throat and look at yourself in the vomit-spattered mirror, or coast through an entire day on just a coffee it’s evident that something isn’t right - but the feeling is equal parts euphoric as it is painful. This stems from the ability to have total control over what you put in your body.

We're all striving for control, it seems, or at least that's what glossy magazines tell us. We want to feel that we have control over our career, our social life, our romantic life and, apparently, our weight. This is the draw for many people with eating disorders. We can do what so many other people can't -  to say no to that burger, over and over again. But the women who are held up as world stars - people like Keira Knightley, Victoria Beckham and Sarah Jessica Parker - are almost exclusively thin. The same cannot be said of their male counterparts like Will Smith, Robert Downey Jr or Jason Statham. What this does is frame thinness and the pursuit of it as an aspirational lifestyle choice for the female form, while the same cannot be said of what society expects the perfect man to look like.

Society fetishises the idea of the thin woman. She's powerful, sexy, can wear whatever she wants and is obviously successful because she's managed to trade temptation for discipline. We're bombarded on all fronts with images of thin women - on the front pages of glossy magazines, on billboards, on television and in porn.

The idea of becoming an unhealthily thin woman as a lifestyle choice is a problem in itself, but it overshadows some of the issues that men with an eating disorder have to deal with. You are far more likely to read a comment on an article about a thin woman along the lines of “I wish I was that skinny” than you are on one featuring a thin man - because male eating disorders have been stigmatised to the point that many people think that eating disorders are exclusively a female affliction. None of this is to take away from the problems and pressures that women face when it comes to body image, but we must acknowledge that similar insecurities are felt by men too.

Unfortunately popular media's idea of what a man should look like is still rooted in the idea of a hunter gatherer that you're more likely to see on a cave painting than walking down the local high street. Magazines like FHM and Men's Health don't run features on how to lose weight, but how to gain muscle bulk. As Steven Baxter pointed out on Monday, we are loath to admit to our vulnerability as men and would rather belittle those who show signs of it. If this is what it means to be a man, what does that mean for a man with an eating disorder?

For me, it felt like someone had taken away my "maleness". To be a man was to be loud, physically strong and a desire to be competitive with others. I lost all of these things when I had an eating disorder. I began to retreat into myself, and as my waistline shrunk so did my desire to do anything fun. Because really, how much fun can you have when you're utterly consumed by the number on the scales?

You find yourself becoming increasingly androgynous and divorced from both genders. It’s one thing to see your energy fading and ribs becoming sharply visible, but the fact that so little is written about male experiences of eating disorders compounds the issue and makes you feel even more like a weirdo who’s failed at being a man. Instead of looking up to celebrities, I obsessed over the works of fashion designer Hedi Slimane, whose collections for Dior exclusively used boyish, emaciated models who were anonymous and androgynous. They, like me, looked like boys wearing men’s clothes, completely divorced from what it means to be beautiful in the conventional male sense.

To admit to being vulnerable is not to lose your male identity. Nor is acknowledging insecurity or personal problems. None of these things discriminate on the basis of gender, and all are related to eating disorders.

Any sufferer looking for help online will find they come across information almost exclusively tailored towards women, which increases the sense of alienation amongst men trying to overcome their eating disorder. Beat, the charity that supports people with eating disorders, estimates that of the 1.6 million estimated people in the UK suffering from an eating disorder, as many as a quarter are male. That figure is enough to warrant people speaking about it openly and writing freely on the subject. Once that happens we might have a better idea of what it means to be a man.

Joseph Stashko is a freelance journalist. He tweets @JosephStash

Macho stars like Daniel Craig are held up as the ideal of masculinity. Photograph: Getty Images

Joseph Stashko is a freelance journalist. He tweets @JosephStash

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How the Brexit campaign lied to us – and got away with it

The Leave camp promised us all a unicorn and now claim they merely hinted at the possibility of a pony.

Whenever something cataclysmic happens in politics, there’s a temptation to trace it back to a single moment that set everything in motion: the shot heard around the world. Or, in the case of the night in the Commons bar where Eric Joyce lamped a fellow MP, prompting a fishy by-election in Falkirk that led to a fundamental reform of the Labour party rules, which enabled the election of Jeremy Corbyn, the punch that changed politics.

You can’t always identify the flap of the butterfly’s wings that creates a hurricane. The EU referendum result was driven by many factors: class, geography, differential turnout, culture and education. Even the broad conclusions – more older voters turned out and they were heavily pro-Brexit; cities went for Remain – must be qualified: why was Liverpool a win for Remain while Sunderland picked Leave?

If there is one sentence that explains the referendum result, though, it’s this one from the website of the Advertising Standards Agency. “For reasons of freedom of speech, we do not have remit over non-broadcast ads where the purpose of the ad is to persuade voters in a local, national or international electoral referendum.” In other words, political advertising is exempt from the regulation that would otherwise bar false claims and outrageous promises. You can’t claim that a herbal diet drink will make customers thinner, but you can claim that £350m a week will go to the NHS instead of the European Union.

The brains behind the Leave victory discovered this loophole in their earlier incarnation as the NoToAV campaign, promising that the cost of a new voting system would deprive babies in incubators or squaddies in Afghanistan of a spurious figure plucked from the air. And they got away with it.

Will they pull off the same trick again? It was noticeable how quickly the twin planks of the Leave campaign – extra money for the health service, and the implicit promise to cut immigration by “taking back control” of our borders – fell apart. On Good Morning Britain just hours after the result was declared, Nigel Farage decried the NHS pledge as a “mistake” (he was not part of the official Leave campaign that made it).

That evening, the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan told Newsnight that “taking back control” of immigration didn’t necessarily mean cutting it. He advocated joining the single market: meaning that if Turkey does join the EU, Britain will be obliged to accept freedom of movement for its citizens. And we won’t have a veto on Turkish accession. (When we leave the EU, we will also lose automatic access to the scheme by which failed asylum-seekers are returned to the country in which they first claimed sanctuary.)

The first few days after the referendum felt like an extended period of gaslighting – being told that things you could distinctly remember happening had not, in fact, happened. How could anyone think that the Leave campaign had promised an extra £350m for the NHS? The money was “an extrapolation . . . never total”, said Iain Duncan Smith on the BBC. It was merely part of a “series of possibilities of what you could do”. My eyes flicked from his pious face to Twitter, where someone had posted a picture of him standing next to the campaign bus. Its slogan read: “We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund the NHS instead.” Then I looked at the pinned Tweet for the chief executive of Vote Leave, Matthew Elliott, which reads: “Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week.” These people promised us a unicorn and now claim they merely hinted at the possibility of a Shetland pony.

More gaslighting was to come in Boris Johnson’s announcement, made through the impeccably democratic, anti-elitist medium of his £250,000-a-year Telegraph column. Of course, we would retain access to the single market, said Johnson. Britons would be allowed to travel and live freely wherever they wanted in Europe, while we could also “take back democratic control of immigration policy, with a balanced and humane points-based system to suit the needs of business and industry”. Unfortunately, to use a phrase beloved by my dad, if Johnson thinks Angela Merkel will give the UK everything we want without giving anything back, he must be crackers.

The debate about free movement will dominate politics all summer, as the Tory leadership contest runs until 2 September. The future direction of the country will be seen through the prism of tactical advantage within the Conservatives. A split is already emerging on the right: Michael Gove, who promised withdrawal from the single market during the campaign, has aligned himself with Johnson. On 28 June, sources close to Johnson said he had been “tired” when he wrote the column, and it would be “vetted” to avoid mixed messages in future.

For the Tories, an unappealing choice lies ahead. It looks as though Britain’s economy is already contracting, thanks to the uncertainty brought on by Brexit. Their 2015 Tory election campaign, which asserted that Ed Miliband was a “threat” to our economic
security, feels blackly humorous.

Some of the pain could be mitigated if Britain accepted a deal close to what we have now. But is that what people voted for? The Leave campaign told voters over and over that mass immigration was frightening and it should be curtailed, and that public services were about to be pumped full of cash clawed back from Brussels. Right now, it’s the Remainers who are angry. But what happens when those who backed Brexit to get back at the political class discover that they have been taken for a ride?

The Leave campaign won by pretending there are simple answers to our problems. They spurned nuance, compromise and trade-offs. They won an astonishing and unexpected victory. But at what price? 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies