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