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

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.