Stepping on to the scales: one fifth of Britons with eating disorders are male. Photo: Mason Masteka on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Breaking the silence: why we should be talking about male eating disorders

An eating disorder doesn’t consider your gender. It is indiscriminate.

James Mitchell suffered from bulimia nervosa. He would eat around 15 packets of crisps in the space of 20 minutes and in an effort to control his fluctuating weight, he would then vomit. “It’s insane. It’s more food than anyone could possibly need or want. Binge eating is like any addiction: when the mood strikes you just want to consume everything in sight,” explained James over the phone. He’s currently revising for finals, so apologises throughout for “mumbling”. During his struggle with the eating disorder – which he has still not fully recovered from – his girlfriend ended their relationship after becoming increasingly concerned about his health.

One evening when James was in a nightclub in Cambridge with his friends he sneaked off to the toilet in order to purge, somewhat of a routine for him. By this point he had been bulimic for almost a year and a half. When pulled from the toilets by the bouncer he explained the situation, and for the first time openly confessed his bulimia. A week or so later, James was forcibly ejected from the toilets of the same club and called a “bulimic twat” by security. They presumed he was purging, when in fact he had just gone to relieve his bladder.

“I was shocked. I hadn’t shared this information with anyone else,” James says. “Then the insults turned nastier, they started to get homophobic.

“Back in the early days when I admitted to having an eating disorder, even girls were shocked. It’s not very attractive. I think women in particular give each a lot more support with the issue,” he says.

The NHS estimates that a fifth of the 1.6 million Britons suffering from some form of eating disorder are male. Yet new research by academics published in the BMJ Open journal claims that young men who suffer from disorders including anorexia are “underdiagnosed, undertreated and underresearched”. The researchers from the University of Oxford and University of Glasgow interviewed 39 young people aged between 16 and 25, including 10 men, about their experiences of diagnosis, treatment and support for eating disorders. According to the study it is partly due to men being unaware of the symptoms, despite purging, not eating for days and obsessive calorie counting. One of the participants, who described himself as “one of the lads”, said he thought eating disorders only affected “fragile teenage girls”.

“Our findings suggest that men experience particular problems in recognising they may have an eating disorder as a result of the continuing cultural construction of eating disorders as uniquely or predominantly a female problem,” said Dr Ulla Raisanen and Dr Kate Hunt in the BMJ Open.

An eating disorder doesn’t consider your gender. It is indiscriminate. It is society, along with its tedious gender norms, that has exclusively associated eating disorders with the fragile teenage girl or the starving model eating tissue to preserve a size zero figure. What doesn’t come to mind is the young male bingeing in the dark, on his own, with four or five large pizzas and then purging into the toilets of a nightclub. We need at all costs to break the stigma attached to male eating disorders if we are to avoid a silent epidemic.

In 2008, the former deputy prime minister, John Prescott, was praised for his courage to confess his two decade-long battle with bulimia. He binged on burgers, crisps, fish and chips until he had the pleasure of feeling full. And then he would vomit. Prescott’s confession did much to address the shame associated with male eating disorder, yet his efforts were constantly undermined by comedians constructing cheap one-liners that dismissed his eating disorder as gluttony and suggested he failed at being bulimic because of his weight. It is a myth that all bulimia sufferers are a size zero: somebody who is overweight when they develop an eating disorder will hold on to that weight.

Hugh Smith suffered from anorexia nervosa in his early twenties. Photo: Ashley Cowburn

Hugh Smith suffered from anorexia nervosa in his early twenties.

Hugh Smith, who is now 23, suffered from anorexia nervosa. “I would run obsessively for an hour everyday to the point where I would be exhausted. I had no energy at all,” explained Hugh over coffee in Camden Town. He believes his anorexia started during his first year at the University of Birmingham and spiralled out of control during his third year, which he spent in Redon, a small town in the north-west of France. His alienation from his friends worsened his eating disorder. “It was the sort of provincial town where once you get to 18 you head off to a city. So there were very few people around to notice any change.”

It wasn’t until Hugh returned from France after losing a substantial amount of weight that his mother (luckily a mental health nurse) spotted the problem. “Men who have eating disorders are not likely to boast about it,” says Hugh. “It’s very easy to read the message in the media that everyone is overweight so everyone must lose weight. For someone who doesn’t have the weight to lose that’s a very dangerous message.”

“When I was diagnosed, it felt like a relief. To actually have a label for it and make it something I could envisage or conceptualise, that made a big difference. It became something I could latch on to and begin to deal with it. Before the diagnosis, I had no idea. It was like a bolt from the blue.

“Since I’ve gone through most of the process of recovery, I have more energy and I’m more able to live my life,” he explains.

Hugh is now a trustee of the charity, Men Get Eating Disorders Too, which primarily aims to raise awareness that eating disorders are indiscriminate.  In both James and Hugh’s struggle with two different types of eating disorders, their situations were compounded by the fact that they didn’t actually recognise it was an eating disorder.“You’re only told it’s an eating disorder afterwards. The eating disorder isn’t the problem  it’s the fact that people don’t speak up about it. I was going years without telling anybody and that was the reason I didn’t recognise it as an eating disorder. . . if you want to feed your anorexia or bulimia then don’t tell anyone about it, because that’s the most important part of an eating disorder,” says James.

The charity BEAT claims that anorexia in the UK has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, from medical complications associated with the disorder as well as suicide. BEAT also estimates that 20 per cent of those who suffer will die prematurely from their illness. In 2011, the NHS reported that the past decade had witnessed a 66 per cent jump in hospital admissions in England due to poor eating habits among men.

The fact that male eating disorders are so little discussed compounds the problem: the issue has been stigmatised to the point that eating disorders are seen as a female affliction – never mind the strangeness of the idea that there can even be such thing as a feminine mental health condition. Society views the young male devouring four or five large pizzas before purging as a behavioural choice rather than a mental health issue. Overeating and bingeing is seen as amusing and funny. It is a necessity for men to speak out and break the taboo of male eating disorders in order to save lives; we need more young men like James and Hugh to come forward with their stories and provide a lifeline for those in need. 

Ashley Cowburn writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2014. He tweets @ashcowburn

 

 

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Just face it, being a parent will never be cool

Traditional parenting terms are being rejected in favour of trendier versions, but it doesn't change the grunt-like nature of the work.

My children call me various things. Mummy. Mum. Poo-Head. One thing they have never called me is mama. This is only to be expected, for I am not cool.

Last year Elisa Strauss reported on the rise of white, middle-class mothers in the US using the term “mama” as “an identity marker, a phrase of distinction, and a way to label the self and designate the group.” Mamas aren’t like mummies or mums (or indeed poo-heads). They’re hip. They’re modern. They’re out there “widen[ing] the horizons of ‘mother,’ without giving up on a mother identity altogether.” And now it’s the turn of the dads.

According to the Daily Beast, the hipster fathers of Brooklyn are asking their children to refer to them as papa. According to one of those interviewed, Justin Underwood, the word “dad” is simply too “bland and drab”:

“There’s no excitement to it, and I feel like the word papa nowadays has so many meanings. We live in an age when fathers are more in touch with their feminine sides and are all right with playing dress-up and putting on makeup with their daughters.”

Underwood describes “dad” as antiquated, whereas “papa” is an “open-minded, liberal term, like dad with a twist” (but evidently not a twist so far that one might consider putting on makeup with one’s sons).

Each to their own, I suppose. Personally I always associate the word “papa” with “Smurf” or “Lazarou.” It does not sound particularly hip to me. Similarly “mama” is a word I cannot hear without thinking of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, hence never without a follow-up “ooo-oo-oo-ooh!” Then again, as a mummy I probably have no idea what I am talking about. If other people think these words are trendy, no doubt they are.

Nonetheless, I am dubious about the potential of such words to transform parenting relationships and identities. In 1975’s Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich describes how she used to look at her own mother and think “I too shall marry, have children – but not like her. I shall find a way of doing it all differently.” It is, I think, a common sentiment. Rejecting mummy or daddy as an identity, if not as an individual, can feel much the same as rejecting the politics that surrounds gender and parenting. The papas interviewed by The Daily Beast are self-styled feminists, whose hands-on parenting style they wish to differentiate from that of their own fathers. But does a change of title really do that? And even if it does, isn’t this a rather individualistic approach to social change?

There is a part of me that can’t help wondering whether the growing popularity of mama and papa amongst privileged social groups reflects a current preference for changing titles rather than social realities, especially as far as gendered labour is concerned. When I’m changing a nappy, it doesn’t matter at all whether I’m known as Mummy, Mama or God Almighty. I’m still up to my elbows in shit (yes, my baby son is that prolific).

The desire to be known as Papa or Mama lays bare the delusions of new parents. It doesn’t even matter if these titles are cool now. They won’t be soon enough because they’ll be associated with people who do parenting. Because like it or not, parenting is not an identity. It is not something you are, but a position you occupy and a job you do.

I once considered not being called mummy. My partner and I did, briefly, look at the “just get your children to call you by your actual name” approach. On paper it seemed to make sense. If to my sons I am Victoria rather than mummy, then surely they’ll see me as an individual, right? Ha. In practice it felt cold, as though I was trying to set some kind of arbitrary distance between us. And perhaps, as far as my sons are concerned, I shouldn’t be just another person. It is my fault they came into this vale of tears. I owe them, if not anyone else, some degree of non-personhood, a willingness to do things for them that I would not do for others. What I am to them – mummy, mum, mama, whatever one calls it – is not a thing that can be rebranded. It will never be cool because the grunt work of caring never is.

It is not that I do not think we need to change the way in which we parent, but this cannot be achieved by hipster trendsetting alone. Changing how we parent involves changing our most fundamental assumptions about what care work is and how we value the people who do it. And this is change that needs to include all people, even those who go by the old-fashioned titles of mum and dad.

Ultimately, any attempt to remarket parenting as a cool identity smacks of that desperate craving for reinvention that having children instils in a person. The moment you have children you have bumped yourself up the generational ladder. You are no longer the end of your family line. You are – god forbid – at risk of turning into your own parents, the ones who fuck you up, no matter what they do. But you, too, will fuck them up, regardless of whether you do it under the name of daddy, dad or papa. Accept it. Move on (also, you are mortal. Get over it).

Parenting will never be cool. Indeed, humanity will never be cool. We’re all going to get older, more decrepit, closer to death. This is true regardless of whether you do or don’t have kids – but if you do you will always have younger people on hand to remind you of this miserable fact.

Your children might, if you are lucky, grow to respect you, but as far as they are concerned you are the past.  No amount of rebranding is going to solve that. This doesn’t mean we can’t change the way we parent. But as with so much else where gender is concerned, it’s a matter for boring old deeds, not fashionable words.

 

 

 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.