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

Getty
Show Hide image

The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.