| Getting what’s good: the stigma of male eating disorders

Warning: This article contains potentially triggering material involving descriptions of disordered eating.

A toast to us my good, kind friends / To bless the things we eat / for it has been full many a year / since we have seen our feet./ But who would lose a precious pound / by trading sweets for sours? / It takes a mighty girth indeed / to hold such hearts as ours.”

In 1866 New England, there was a group of men who enjoyed being mutually fat with one another. They would get together at a tavern and eat and laugh and their round bellies would jiggle and they were happy about it.

In 2012, one-third of Canadian men reportedly engage in unhealthy eating habits such as fasting, vomiting, taking laxatives, skipping meals, or smoking to control their appetite. To put this in perspective, McGill, with almost 40,000 students – 48 per cent of which are male – would have approximately 6,400 male students with unhealthy eating habits.

In the past, body image research has been driven by interest in eating disorders themselves. Because the reported rates are so low for males, they have been mostly ignored within the research sphere, making it almost impossible for statistics to be compiled regarding the prevalence of the illnesses among men. The problem is institutional as well: the majority of treatment centres turn men away because they believe eating disorders require sex-differentiated treatment, and there isn’t enough of a perceived demand for them to provide men treatment.

McGill does supposedly treat men, but after two weeks of pestering Dr. Robert Franck, the clinical director at McGill’s Student Mental Health Service, with emails and office visits, he remained perpetually unavailable to discuss this issue on our campus and his experiences with men suffering from anorexia within the Eating Disorder Program.

Samuel* is a third year McGill student who studies science and economics. We spoke online via the “Experience Project,” an independent chat-room style site where people can “find others who understand [them].” He is only beginning to seek help with his disordered eating, but enjoys the privacy of the internet and the prevalence of “other people with secrets.”

Samuel likes reading, meditation, and autumn. When he was younger, he identified as bisexual; however, due to his restricted diet and the impact he perceives it to have on his sex drive, he no longer experiences any sort of attraction at all – to men or women – and he now considers himself “asexual.”

Samuel grew up in a very traditional, religious family in the southern United States. He believes his disorder stems from the stigma he faced growing up and his family’s unwillingness to accept his sexuality.

The limited literature on male disordered eating has found that for men, disorders are often predicated by a “homosexual conflict,” or gender or identity crisis. Samuel found that he could reduce his sex drive through starvation, and thus more adequately ignore his “inappropriate” impulses and please his parents.

Queer men may be slightly more likely to be unhappy with their physique because of the emphasis on appearance in gay culture, but heterosexual and homosexual men report equivalent levels of body esteem, satisfaction with shape, and desired level of thinness. Gay men, however, are more likely to seek treatment, according to information from a student health pamphlet at Brown University.

Samuel was a chubby child; the rest of his family is still overweight, and his father and sister are clinically obese. In grade school, Samuel experienced weight-related bullying, something that 30 per cent of girls and 25 per cent of boys living in North America experience in grades 7 to 12

As Samuel got older, he began to associate his weight with all of his problems, and assumed everything would be better if he were thin. At the same time, his parents began to worry about his burgeoning expressions of his sexuality.

Correlations have been found between sexual or relationship anxiety and disordered eating. In one study, 80 per cent of men grew up in families that regarded sex as taboo, and of them 95 per cent were relieved at the loss of their sex drive.

For Samuel, the “high” he experienced from not eating coupled with his continual oscillations between corporeality and bodilessness helped him to exist in what he called his “Narnia,” a pretend world where he found refuge from a religion he didn’t believe in and parents who would rather he were dead than love men.

The pursuit of muscularity, leanness, and stereotypical “manliness” are not the new goals of a new generation. The time in history when the “fat” were revered was relatively short-lived and restricted to specific circumstances. Whether we’re examining art from Ancient Egypt or Rome, or the contemporary example of Brad Pitt, we see a continuing reverence towards one enduring typology: a muscular man with “masculine” traits, or the “mesomorph.”

The mesomorph is the middle constitution in a somatotype classification system that was developed by the American psychologist W.H. Sheldon (who, for those interested, was criticized by fellow academics for mistaking correlation and causation and pseudo-representative sampling). In 1954, Sheldon published a book called The Atlas of Men in which he asserted that there were three body types – lanky, muscular, and pudgy – each with an associated temperament. His theories enjoyed a brief cultural vogue in the 1950s, but his favourably stereotyped mesomorph still dictates an enduring “ideal” of manliness: a well-muscled man who is stoic, stable, and shows no emotions other than tendencies toward aggression and violence.

With the societal role of media increasing, the feeling and talking taboo adds insult to injury. Men are made to feel more inadequate about how they look while simultaneously being prohibited from talking about it or even admitting it to themselves. Unable to express themselves any other way, men often turn to anger – percieved to be the only commonly accepted and encouraged male emotion.

This traditionally accepted propagation of what a man is and should be contributes to a continuing belief that musculature determines sexual successes, and that one’s physique is the predominant determinant of supremacy. Essentially, Sheldon’s lasting legacy is that how a man looks determines his self-worth, power, and success. This persistent objectification of men and the male physique as a societal commodity only helps to further enforce this externally contrived identity.

Our society and culture continue to produce extreme and unattainable body standards for men and women that often lead to disordered eating. But men often cannot recognize or admit to such disorders because eating disorders have been branded as “womanly.” Even if men are able to recognize they have a problem, they often can’t get help because of a severe lack of resources and services for the largely unrecognized problem of male disordered eating.

Samuel said that the hardest thing about his disorder is that it’s not like any other substance addiction; it’s not like he can just stop eating and not have to deal with it anymore. He’s happy that anorexia, which for so long has been classified as a women’s disease, is beginning to be recognized as an acceptable diagnosis for men.

“Hopefully this shift toward recognition will mean that people who are ready can get help,” he said.

He’s been particularly pleased with the recent coverage in men’s health magazines.

“It’s like in the GQ article (September, 2012), the last guy was talking about how he felt horrible thinking it but all the people he knows who’ve been through treatment are fat. I feel horrible saying it too, but they are. And I don’t want to be like that. When you try and gain weight the fat goes to all the wrong places and it just looks terrible. I think this is beautiful and no matter what I try and make myself think, I still think thin is wonderful, and trendy. Androgyny is in right now. Look around campus, look around Montreal. The thin men, the thin women, they’re all beautiful. Something thin is something good, and we all like something good.”

“Most of us don’t have enough of what’s good.”

 

*name has been changed


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