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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).