Male eating disorders are receiving far more media attention than ever before. Newspapers and TV are reporting on men’s stories of living with disordered eating. This is important because eating disorder research and personal accounts of eating disorders have focused almost exclusively on the experiences of women with the illness. Men with eating disorders have been largely marginalized. This marginalization is holding back our understanding.
Telling our story is human. It helps us to process what has happened to us. It allows us to make sense of what we are experiencing in comparison with others, it situates us within society and provides a detailed description that documents not just facts and figures, but the realities of men’s perceptions of what they endure. Female sociologists and psychologists have studied what women have lived through2. I have tried to do this in my own work. I gather the personal stories of men who have experienced disordered eating. I’ve located stories that already exist, as well as asking men to write their stories specifically for my research.
When I work with men’s experiences, I’m not looking for patterns and trends, instead I’m interested in the unique accounts that men have to tell. When men write their stories in their own words, we find a rich tapestry of personal experience. Sometimes there is hope and ‘happy endings’, however sometimes a man’s story leaves us with the sense that life cannot always be positively resolved in a neat way. What I want to offer here is a brief description of two accounts that I have studied in detail, as part of a much larger group of stories. I have deliberately chosen stories that are in the public domain, so that you can find them and read them for yourself.
So, what have I encountered in terms of men’s experiences of eating disorder? Pain. An all-consuming relationship with a coping strategy that gradually became increasingly maladaptive. Both men report that they subsequently recovered from their eating disorder but the brief narratives I share below are not the usual and oft-seen stories of recovery. Instead, I’ve focused on describing the unpleasant realities of what some men live with – which is precisely what we often avoid. Perhaps you will recognize some of the two men’s experiences? If so, please bear in mind that, sometimes, reading personal stories can be triggering – so please proceed with caution.
Men who experience eating disorders deal with extreme amounts of emotional and physical pain. Jim is a man who is well-versed in pain endurance. He thought that being a good husband to his wife was about keeping things from her by not voicing his anxieties and concerns. He encouraged is wife to express herself, all the while he was becoming more and more introspective and insular. When he had a serious health scare related to his weight and his diet, he began a regimen of low-fat food, bought a set of scales and a treadmill, and began to reform his excess. Jim saw folds of fat, long after he had lost any excess weight, whenever he saw his reflection. He became more adept than any committed dieter at his knowledge and commitment to nutritional labeling on foods. All of this was accompanied by a stifling ‘realization’ that his family and friends would be far better off if he weren’t around. This wasn’t just a passing thought – he was convinced of it.
What began as a scare-induced health-kick quickly degenerated into a grueling form of self-torture where personal pain barriers were transgressed, as his body was put through an ever-increasing obsessive schedule of exercise. Even a normal bodily function, such as using the toilet became a mission to force his muscles to expel as much waste as possible so that he would weigh less when he stepped on the scales.
“I flexed my stomach muscles while standing in front of the toilet to force out as much pee as possible. Then I sat on the toilet and put my bowels through a work out to eliminate even the tiniest bit of waste. The less in me, the less I weighed… As I took each step, my stomach somersaulted and twisted around itself, knowing that there was a possibility that the scale would show failure today.”
When his mother suggested he took just a day off exercising, his reaction was severe and immediate – such a thing could not be allowed to happen. Worse still, when he injured himself, the distress at not being able to exercise was acute and overwhelming. Not working off the calories became not just an inconvenience but a major challenge to his well-being. He was willing to endure any amount of pain, as long as it meant he could still get on the treadmill. The more skeletal Jim became, the stronger was his resolve, the more pain he was prepared to deal with …the more he became a stranger in his own family.
Many men, like Frank, are raised with the firm idea that more food is better, that a growing healthy boy always needs second and third helpings and their family reinforces the notion that to have a hearty appetite is manly and desirable. Unlike other men, however, Frank saw this, over time, morph into something altogether more damaging. As Frank himself says, his primary relationship was not with a sibling, friend or romantic partner – it was with his stomach. Anorexia often gets ‘more press’ than other eating disorders – this is understandable – to onlookers, it can look and feel more obvious and real. Extreme weight loss can be observed more readily and be of more concern to clinicians and medical practitioners – but what about bulimia in an overweight man?
When Frank developed his problems with excess obsessive food consumption, he wasn’t obese – chubby perhaps – but certainly not someone who looked as if his calorie consumption was beyond control. He was a regular swimmer and was physically fit but he was very aware that his body just didn’t have a ‘swimmer’s build’. People commented as much. As Frank relied more and more on food to make him feel comforted and worthwhile, his weight began to increase. The humiliation of putting his nonswimmers body on display was too much. He began to assume a ‘fat person identity’ – once a fat lad, always a fat lad. However, this did not mean that he accepted or embraced being big. Instead, he fantasised about “…the wondrous Xanadu of the wilfully emaciated”. He convinced himself if he could just lose a magical inch from his waist size, then his confidence would be restored and he could hold his head high.
Frank became adept at knowing where the bathrooms were everywhere he went so that he could instantly purge without any great delay. He had ready lies available for anyone he was out with as to why he had had to vanish to the bathroom. At home, he would hike the volume on his stereo up, so no-one could hear the retching and choking of his self-induced vomiting. Then entire evenings would be lost to furtive and fervent late-night eating. When he tried to wean himself off vomiting, his waistline expanded terrifyingly. He found he was down to only two pairs of trousers that would still fit:
“What now? Buying new pants was out of the question, because that would mean buying bigger pants, and that would mean reconciling myself to a heavier, broader me, and the heavier, broader me would be gone in a week, wouldn’t it?”
These kinds of thoughts became all-consuming. Buying new clothes was not just a consequence of life but a major admission of guilt, failure and shame. Over time, Frank had tried claiming to be various types of an eater: vegetarian, fruitarian… anything just to publicly limit him in the foodstuffs he would be ‘allowed’ to officially consume in front of other people. Yet, all the while he binged in secret and took alarming amounts of laxatives to try to rid himself of the excess.
Something that is often not discussed is a conversation about men, sex and eating disorders. Not so in Frank’s story. He recognized that his consuming relationship with food had rendered him as a sort of “sexual Switzerland”. People would willingly confide in him about their own desires, encounters or rejections and he occupied the role of being a neutral, non-sexual being with no sexual identity. People assumed that he had no sexual relationships – and they were right, as despite the desires he felt ebb and flow, he was never able to act on them, fearing he would be outright rejected because of his size. Frank existed in a sort of limbo – aching for attachment, closeness and a satisfying love life – but utterly unable to contemplate initiating and maintaining any intimate relationship.
These two accounts are just the tip of the iceberg. How many other men are yet to tell their stories? It is somewhat clichéd to say these men are ‘brave’ for having the courage to write about what they have been through, but that is exactly what they are. And we can learn much from them that goes beyond medical tick-sheets of symptoms and behaviors. This experiential view helps us to understand the essence of what it is to be caught in the vice-like grip of a disorder that sets out to ‘save us’, then betrays us by controlling our very existence.
If you are in the UK and need more information or support for you or a man you know who has an eating disorder, please contact the charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too.
1. Jones W, Morgan J. Eating disorders in men: A review of the literature. Journal of Public Mental Health. 2010 Jul 29; 9(2): 23-31.
2. MacSween M. Anorexic bodies: A feminist and sociological perspective on anorexia nervosa. Routledge; 2013 Nov 26.
3. Delderfield R. Eating Disorders in Men. University of Bradford; 2016 [Available from: http://www.brad.ac.uk/eating-disorders-in-men].
4. Kohl J. Skeletal Marriage. Createspace; 2009.
5. Bruni F. Born Round: the Secret History of a Full-time Eater. Penguin Press; 2009.
About The Author:
Written – 2017