When people think about eating disorders, they usually think about young women. Indeed, a good 20 million American women experience at least one significant eating disorder at some point in their lives, with research from 2005 suggesting that as many as half of all teenage girls have engaged in extreme weight control behaviors, including prolonged fasting, vomiting and taking laxatives.
But there’s another side to the national eating disorder discussion that you don’t really hear that much about. That’s the estimated 10 million American males who also suffer from eating disorders, including the 30 percent of teenage boys who often go to dangerous lengths to keep their weight down.
While female eating disorders are no secret – indeed, they are often used as a policy-framing tools to goad the fashion and entertainment industries to change how they market their products and wares – male eating disorders, despite their surprisingly high prevalence, remain a rarely mentioned phenomenon. Guys, after all, represent at least a third of all people in the country with eating disorders, so how come you never hear about the perils or “manorexia” on talk shows or newsmagazine programs?
In a lot of ways, there is a much greater stigma attached to male eating disorders than female eating disorders. Call it sexist, call it misogynistic, call it what you will, but generally speaking, women in the U.S. WANT to be skinnier. If you polled 100 women right now, a good 90 percent of them would say they want to lose weight, and most likely, a considerable amount. That doesn’t “normalize” eating disorders and it certainly doesn’t justify them, but it’s an obvious origin point for so many eating disorders among women. Society/the patriarchy/Hollywood’s unrealistic beauty standards/whatever demands women be thin, and as a result, a lot of young girls wind up developing eating disorders. It’s not right, it’s certainly not good, but it makes a tremendous amount of sense, unfortunately.
But dudes, on the other hand, are never encouraged to “be skinny.” In fact, the only time males are actively encouraged by anybody to lose weight is when they are jockeys or amateur wrestlers trying to make weight for competitions. Men, the “accepted” cultural narrative goes, are supposed to be calorie-devouring machines with big, burly physiques. So how in the world do they end up developing anorexia and bulimia?
Well, it’s for the same reason anyone – regardless of their gender – maintains an eating disorder: the illusion of self-control.
This is a topic I know quite a great deal about – for the last decade, I’ve had to deal with it myself.
You see, nobody ever makes the conscious choice to “develop” an eating disorder out of the blue one day. They don’t just see a poster or a music video and start barfing and starving. Sure, many prolonged disorders may begin with the mere objective of losing weight the easiest and fastest way possible, but to have an eating disorder for years and years, something else has to happen. At that point, the problem has nothing to do with “body image” or any of that other hippy-dippy claptrap the talking heads on TV like to ramble on and on about. Rather, it becomes one person’s self-declared war against themselves, with the bathroom scale serving as the scoreboard.
As a kid, I was fat. Really, really fat. But through the wonders of puberty and sports, I managed to drop a ton of weight in middle school. That was no conscious effort on my part – I didn’t count calories, I didn’t control my portions, I didn’t engage in marathon cardio-training and I never, ever weighed myself to chart my “progress.” The magic of metabolism – in tandem with a more active lifestyle – just reshaped me that way.
By the end of high school, though, I had become a sedentary loser that liked to drink a lot and play Xbox. The only time I went outside was to check the mailbox, and as a result, I got fat again. To be frank, this never really bothered me, but after a doctor gave me a stern talking to about being overweight – along with the fact that I was bored and had nothing else better to do – I decided “what the hell, I’ll try to lose some weight.”
Now here’s the key part. At that point in my life, I wasn’t doing a damned thing productive. I was in that weird interphase between high school and college, and I wasn’t quite ready to start socializing with people like a normal human being. So somewhere in my head, the two “goals” got cross wired: I need to lose weight and I need to do something with my life. For whatever reason, I had decided in my mind that in order to do something worthwhile with myself and get people to like me and want to hang out and make out with me, I first had to reinvent myself, and priority number one, obviously, was making those jelly rolls come off.
Remember that – it’s going to be a really important talking point a little bit later.
So, I started working out and sweating all over the place and limiting my meal sizes. I switched from regular soda to diet soda, and instead of having lunch, I just had a stick of gum. Then I checked the scale. This week, I was five pound lighter than I was the week before.
That’s progress, I thought to myself. I’m really doing this. Now, to keep it up.
So the workouts got longer. The sweating became more profuse. The meals got smaller. Another five pounds. Awesome.
At the beginning of an eating disorder, you feel accomplished. You may not have control over the circumstances of your life or the general world around you, but by golly, you have the ability to control how much you weigh. It kind of feeds off your ego, in a way. “Look at what I’m able to do,” you think to yourself. “I feel empowered, for once, I’m in charge of my own life.”
The 10 lost pounds turn into 20. Then 30, 40 and 50. By then, the weight loss program stops being a goal and becomes a religion. It’s something that consumes your thoughts, day and night. You worry about gaining all the weight back, so you decide to step up your game even more. More exercising – why not three hours a day? More sweating – in fact, it is such a great way to keep the pounds off, why don’t I go out and buy one of those little rubber trash bag suits and sweat out even more? Then, there’s the food. Sure, I am hungry, but if I DON’T take in any calories today, all the calories I’ve burned so far will pretty much count double. I mean, that’s a pretty logical thing to do, isn’t it?
Soon, food becomes your arch enemy. You start looking at hamburgers and pizzas not as delicious fuel sources, but sentient things that want to derail you from your path to self-actualization. They literally become forbidden fruits, to the point you start lusting after them in your dreams. At my lowest point, I vividly recall just staring at images of ice cream and lasagna on Wikipedia, like I was perversely scanning an XXX website.
But the battle continues. Come on, man, look at all the progress you’ve made already – you really want to throw all of that away for some damn Pop-Tarts and Hot Pockets?
So you keep exercising like crazy – pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion – and keep sweating. It’s the middle of summer, and you’re blasting the heat in your car at full blast. Yeah, it’s a cheap way to lose weight, but this is a war, remember – anything goes. You know, I wonder how much water I retain by swallowing my spit? Maybe I ought to keep an empty water bottle on hand, just to wring out a few ounces here and there.
Then, your diet just goes straight to hell. You’ve limited yourself to an absolutely insanely low amount of calories per day – 1,500, 1,000, 500 tops. The number always gets lower every few months. You absolutely dread going out to dinner with your friends and family. “Great, now I have to put down a few slices of pizza. What is that, 400, 600, 800 calories? I’ll eat it so they won’t get any wild ideas about me having a ‘problem,’ but tomorrow I’ve really got to make up for it. Hell, maybe I shouldn’t eat anything at all tomorrow.”
Funny how quickly calorie counting just all of a sudden turns into “not eating,” and exercising like crazy turns into good old fashioned bingeing and purging. At my nadir, I found myself voluntarily choosing to go three days a week without eating anything at all, just so I could amass a small treasure trove of food on Thursday night and stuff myself silly. And of course, that meant I had to spend all weekend sweating and burning calories, just so I could do the same thing all over again the next week.
I never made myself vomit, nor did I ever take any drugs to burn fat or make me poop like a Canadian Goose. I preferred the natural, cyclical fast – so efficient, so ritualistic, so predictable. Nothing else in the world was under my control, but this? I was definitely the one running the show.
Eventually, you hit a numerical plateau. I said I would stop after losing 100 pounds, and over the course of a year, I did it. But now that I was a lean and mean 135 pounds, what was my new self-cause going to be? Well, naturally, that would be staying at 135 pounds no matter what. I would weigh myself dozens of times a day – if that little spinner as much as looked one millimeter to the right of one-three-five, I started panicking. OK, got to lose weight. I mean, lose weight right freaking now. The speed bike? How about thirty minutes of crunches? Yeah, that ought to do it.
Some people with eating disorders don’t have a “golden number,” but I’d venture to guess that most do. It’s that magical, otherworldly number that makes everything else in the world tolerable. Never mind all the other crap going on – the bills, my homework, my girlfriend being mad at me, how much work sucks – as long as I can stay RIGHT HERE, I will be just fine.
And folks, that’s been my thought process – as irrational as it is – for the better part of the last 10 years. In fact, it’s been only recently, very recently, that I discarded the bathroom scale. After dedicating myself to staying at 135 – the golden number – for nearly a third of my life, last I checked, I’m about 170-something. Five years ago, I would’ve been hysterical about that. The older, wiser, more self-assured soul I am, however, it just doesn’t bother me anymore.
So what happened between then and now to change my outlook on life, and dieting and being the person I wanted to be? Well, simply put, I finally managed to untangle those “crossed wires” from a decade ago. I decided that I was already in control of my own life, and that I didn’t need to look a certain way or weigh a very precise amount to be a happy, fulfilled, and most importantly, self-made person.
When my eating disorder began, I didn’t control a damn thing about my life. I didn’t have a real job, I didn’t have a college degree, I still lived at home. At that point in time, the only way for me to be truly independent was by controlling a very, very specific thing about my own body. As a 30-year-old man, however, it dawned upon me that I am in direct control of my own circumstances. I can make as much money as a I want, live wherever I want and buy whatever I want just as long as I am willing to make the effort and, if need be, suffer the consequences.
Eating disorders are romanticized as never-ending journeys of becoming. The reality is, there is no end goal in mind, other than the perpetual challenge of staying right where you are. Ultimately, it becomes the absolute opposite of the thing that you wanted: instead of liberating you and allowing you to be the person you thought you wanted to be, it captures you and convinces you to dedicate your life to serving your own neurosis.
Some people manage to break the cycle by finding a “safe” balance between exercise and diet that doesn’t entail extensive fasting or working out until you collapse. Others spend decades caught up in the arbitrary struggle, counting calories and starving themselves for “the greater good.” And sadly, a lot of people let it kill them. Most people, however, just kind of break away from eating disorders by living their own lives. With work and school and balancing finances and raising kids, there’s no time to worry about how much you weigh. You eat what you can, you eat what you like, you exercise if you feel like it, and if you get fat, big deal.
Eating disorders prey on insecure people. It gives them a sense of self-worth and forward movement when they feel most vulnerable. The trick to “beating” anorexia and bulimia is pretty obvious: you have to find something else that gives you that same sense of personal value and progress, and swap one obsession for another. I can’t tell you how many marathon runners, hikers, kayakers, writers, bicyclists, weekend musicians, amateur mixed martial artists and bodybuilders I’ve ran into who initially started off as people with eating disorders. Eventually, they got over their disorders by trading in the good stuff they got from not eating or over-exercising for the even better stuff associated with their new passions.
Now, are there key differences in the hows and whys of female eating disorders compared to male eating disorders? Certainly, and because of those factors – be they social or biological constructs – the best practices for recovery and rehabilitation are going to be different depending on one’s gender.
That said, THE reason why eating disorders manifest themselves and becomes so deeply ingrained in a person’s life is fundamentally the same, man or woman. The moment someone realizes they – and they alone – are in the driver’s seat of their own lives and they wholeheartedly believe it, the disorders can be defeated. From there, it’s just a matter of finding the right constructive, external outlet to redirect that same destructive, internal compulsion.
The only question? Just how much damage will you do to yourself – physically, mentally and emotionally – before you finally come to your senses?