My column at Jezebel this week looks at the remarkable recent uptick in media attention to guys with eating disorders: Can Plus-Size Male Models and Nude Photo Shoots Help Men’s Body Image? Excerpt:
Perhaps 1 in 4 of the 1.6 million Britons with an eating disorder are male, writes Joseph Stashko in the New Statesman. (The National Eating Disorders Association suggests that 1 in 10 anorexia or bulimia sufferers in the US are men, a discrepancy that may well be down to male under-reporting.) Stashko, who vividly describes his own battle with anorexia, laments that “any sufferer looking for help online will find they come across information almost exclusively tailored towards women…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.”
A significant part of the problem Stashko describes isn’t just the absence of resources directed at men battling anorexia or bulimia. It’s that our images of male beauty and desirability are in some ways even more limited and unattainable than those offered to women. While we assume men are allowed greater leeway to be physically imperfect, how often do we see shirtless male models that are anything but perfectly ripped? As the fashion industry moves tentatively towards promoting a wider (and perhaps healthier) size continuum for female models, a soft body is still anathema for men in fashion. The tyranny of the six-pack is absolute.
A kerfuffle emerged in the Jezebel comments section (and on Jezebel’s Facebook page) about whether the male body image crisis is a real thing or a media fabrication designed to distract attention from women’s issues. Most folks seem to recognize that the issue is real; check out this terrific article in the Atlantic by Rebecca Wagner, or the remarkable story about singer D’Angelo’s struggles in GQ. Sexualization of boys is also a growing problem, as Amy Jussel and Spark Summit’s Bailey Shoemaker Richards make clear in this powerful essay.
As a great many commenters have said, suffering is not a zero-sum game. Acknowledging that men and boys also battle body shame and eating disorders needn’t mean ignoring the tremendous pain of women and girls. At the same time, I’m not claiming a false equivalence. When it comes to eating disorders, men make up between 10-25% of those afflicted; even allowing for masculine “tough guy” underreporting, virtually everyone agrees that more women than men struggle with these diseases. We can start to strategize to reach the men and boys who are suffering without ignoring the reality that the body image crisis is still heavily gendered.
A personal note: though I’d struggled with body shame since the time I first hit puberty, I didn’t start seriously dieting or compulsively exercising until I was 25. In the summer of 1992, my first wife and I separated. Depressed and lonely, I lost my appetite. I weighed about 180 pounds on my 6’1″ frame before the split; within three months I’d lost 35 pounds. As I dropped more and more weight, I found myself getting hooked on the thrill of the losing — and the high that came from my imagined self-control in limiting myself to under 1000 calories a day. I don’t know if I met the diagnostic criteria for anorexia, but I certainly was engaged in borderline anorectic behavior.
As I got skinnier and skinnier (below 165 pounds, my facial features tend to become rather skeletal), more and more family and friends began to express concern. Some of my fellow UCLA graduate students spread the rumor that I had AIDS; several people sat me down for mini-interventions. No one — no one — told me I looked good. Everyone said “you’re much too thin,” or “please gain weight!” As a man, my eating disorder was discouraged and prompted alarm.
My female friends who struggled with similar disorders got very different reactions. As they lost weight to the point of emaciation, they got as many compliments as expressions of concern. In many instances, the praise and the encouragement continued even as these women damaged their health, a point made with brutal clarity in Carré Otis’ memoir, Beauty, Disrupted.
My self-loathing was terrible in 1992; my dieting extreme. There’s no point in trying to discern whether I had it “worse” or “easier” than my female peers who were also battling body dysmorphia. Yet there’s no doubt that in terms of public reaction, I had it much easier — evidence of my disease brought an avalanche of concern and worry, while the same evidence in my female friends brought toxic encouragement. My recovery was exponentially easier as a result of that male privilege.
Of course, that was 1992. The standards for both male and female beauty have gotten dramatically more extreme in the past 20 years. The ideal body is more unattainable than ever, and the number of male sufferers has risen demonstrably. But I still suspect that when it comes to social reinforcement/discouragement for eating disorders, women have it worse. Acknowledging that gendered reality, however, doesn’t make men’s pain any less authentic or any less deserving of our concern.