Exploring Male Anorexia

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A bong is being passed around the art school dorm. Brett, a DJ, is talking. “It’s good to not eat for like three days. Then on the fourth day have a little meal. Then little meals from there.” Alex, a film major, listens. He stamps out a cigarette and lights another. “Sometimes I won’t eat for over a week, I lose count of the days.” he begins to pace.

There are a lot of us who are outspoken about unrealistic beauty standards. But there’s not a lot of talk about male beauty standards. But it’s there, staring at these guys from their computer screens: “add inches to your cock”, “6 pack abs fast”, “Lose weight now”.

Studies from the 80′s concluded that anorexia in males stems from issues in “gender identity”. From conflicted homosexuality. Anorexia can be about sexuality. And it’s obvious there is a cultural pressure in the gay community for guys to be fit and hot. But labeling male anorexia as a queer issue feels naive, out of touch. The guys I talked to weren’t gay, but not typical alphas either. They talk about art films, own record collections, fit into that loose label of “hipster.”

They also seem in touch with their sexuality. Though Alex has fainted at parties and blacks out easily, he and Brett casually drop dozens of women they’ve slept with.

Alex scrolls through his Ipod. “Bright Eyes has songs about eating disorders” he says. My eyebrows raise, hoping that’s not what he’s going to play. He misunderstands, backing up. “I really have been eating, though. Like, 2, 3 days a week.”  He’s talking from the eating disorder part, a part impossible to reason with.

He paces again, talking in circles. Alex is sharp and he’s using a mass of brain space mindlessly obsessing.  Later in repose, smoking a cigarette, he says, “when you reach a point where you are purposely starving yourself or actually throwing up your food, it has gone past simple vanity, it is a mental and emotional problem as well as a physical one.”

As a teen, Alex was depressed and overweight.“I don’t really have an ideal weight because I‘m never happy with my weight, no matter what, when I eat I feel 100 pounds heavier,“ he says.

According to the Eating Disorders Association (EDA) about 10% of people being treated for anorexia and bulimia are males.  Another study in 2007 by the Harvard University Medical School suggested that  25% of adults with eating disorders were male. Eating disorders in guys often go unrecognized, untreated according to the EDA.

But it didn‘t take long for Alex‘s girlfriend, Melanie to catch on. “One day when we just started dating we were at lunch in the dorm, and she said ‘what, are you going to go throw that up‘”.

Melanie is in her car, eating a taco. Her voice raises, talking about Alex’s eating disorder.  “All we ever did was get high and eat, I started gaining weight, and he kept getting skinnier. I felt deceived. I tell him he is beautiful… but I don’t know what to do.” She pauses for a moment. “When your boyfriend is skinnier than you it starts to get to you. But more than anything it just pisses me off.”

Alex says Melanie was anorexic in high school. It might seem an ex-anorexic would be especially empathetic and helpful, but as they say in treatment, you are always in recovery. Here, caught in a destructive dance of trigger and resentment.

According to Dr. Kavita Ajmere, a Psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, there is a pressure on males to be thin and attractive now more than ever. “Thin has become trendy, just like with women the media influences men with it’s unrealistic standards,” she says.

“The socialization pattern is different with men too. When women get together they talk and express their feelings, men tend to not communicate as much, so it is much harder for them to admit they have a problem. We raise little boys to be tough, we teach them that boys don’t cry that they should grin and bear it. Unfortunately this makes it much harder to get through to males with eating disorders,” she says.

While the guys I talked to were actively pushing away or challenging a lot of gender roles, it seems that this male socialization is what makes it feel so impossible.

“It was so embarrassing when my roommate caught me purging  dinner.” Alex winces. “He walked in the bathroom to ask me a question, then realized I was puking and just walked out. It was so emasculating, I had to sit on the bathroom floor knowing that when I walked out he would be sitting in the small dorm room we shared.”

Alex emerged, unapologetic. “I told him not to say anything about it, that he wasn’t going to change my mind. I’m going to do what I want to do,” he says, a glass of wine loosely in one hand , the gold liquid spinning. “No one can help you but yourself.”

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