Male anorexia is on the rise in the United States and Europe. At least, it is being recognized and diagnosed more often. Yet eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa are still predominately seen as female conditions. Often, men are left out of the discussion about eating disorders altogether.
It is an issue our society loves to avoid, but for men with disordered eating, cultural silence regarding this condition can mean years of undue isolation, confusion and struggle. It is something I know firsthand.
So I want to end my own silence about my personal conflict with food; to try to understand it, so I can overcome it.
For any person, male or female, the reasons for developing an eating disorder is not necessarily clear.
My whole life I’ve been underweight. Born a month early, I weighed 5 pounds, 15 ounces and was too small to fit into standard newborn clothes. I remained smaller than average height and weight throughout my childhood.
Growing up in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, I was surrounded by large-framed, fair-haired boys who were practically purebred Viking descendants. I was always the pale, petite boy with curly black hair and blue eyes. In the super-homogenized culture of the upper-Midwest, that is enough to be considered exotic.
I think it was this sense that I was unique that I liked. A large part of my individuality seemed, to me, to be set in the thinness of my frame. It was this consideration that would lay the groundwork for my struggle with anorexia.
But, of course, there are innumerable factors that can contribute to the development of eating disorders.
Insecurities about body image play a role, as do societal pressures regarding beauty and youth. For women, especially, there is an immense amount of pressure to maintain (often impossible) beauty standards for weight and appearance.
Yet men in this country are not necessarily expected to uphold the same commitment to thinness that women are. In fact, in this country, it is considered a feminine trait to be very slender. So whereas a woman might feel obligated to lose weight to fit society’s prescribed notion of beauty, a man doing the same thing often betrays our culture’s definition of masculinity.
This means the male anorexic often exists in a realm of relative isolation from his own gender, all because of how he practices the societal ritual of food consumption.
Because, when you boil it down, that is what my anorexia has been about. It is not a matter of my wanting to be thin for aesthetic reasons, or thinking that being skinny makes me attractive. It is a general unease with our entire eating ritual.
In America, we no longer have rules about consumption. People eat whenever and wherever they want, and to whatever extent they feel entitled. People in this country eat to the point that it makes them sick, simply because they can. We have absolute freedom to use food as a means of amusement or comfort rather than sustenance and nutrition.
It was this kind of freedom that I found oppressive. It was a freedom which beckoned for my consent to participate in the American act of senseless indigestion.
For me, to stop eating would be to differentiate myself from the immeasurable masses and free myself from the onerous burden of conformity. It eased my mind to relish my self-control, while I watched those around me give in to their overly decadent human natures.
It was about the twisted sense of pride that comes from maintaining a nearly skeletal frame.
I remember talking to a group of Christians who were “fasting” for their religion by giving up things like pizza and soda for Lent. At the time, I had spent six months living on essentially nothing but celery, water, crackers and the occasional apple.
I thought myself so superior to these people. I thought I was stronger than they could ever hope to be. I thought anorexia felt better than God.
I didn’t realize how sick I was getting.
I just wanted to have absolute command over my body, because it was the one thing that was solely mine. More than anything, I wanted a sense of comfort and control, so that food could not contribute to my unhappiness. It is not a logical form of thinking.
I got to a point where my weight was too much for my frame, so that the simple act of supporting myself quickly made me tired. I was nearly six feet tall but wore size 12 little boys’ jeans. I used cigarettes to stop my appetite.
Then, one day, while walking up the stairs in my mother’s house, I blacked out.
I woke up a couple of minutes later in a recliner. My mom had caught me, preventing me from collapsing down the stairs, and carried me into the living room to recover. She seemed so concerned, so scared about what was happening, that it really shook me—and made me want to get better.
I started to think: I was only given this one body, so why would I choose to destroy it? Where does this irrational behavior stem from?
Not surprisingly, it stems from fear.
The more intently I began to examine my food-avoidant tendencies, the more I realized I was afraid to change. I was afraid to relinquish the control that I had honed over so many years. I was afraid of becoming something unknown to myself and to those around me.
We are all like this to an extent.
My experience with this disease plays like an allegory, wherein my body could easily be a metaphor for our society’s treatment of this planet. The destruction I inflict upon my own body stems from my inability to see myself in a form different from what I know. Likewise, we continue to ravage our earth for fear of how difficult it would be to find another way to live.
Confusion comes from ambiguity over which is more appealing: the various prospects of advancing technology or the strong pull of tradition. But working through anorexia has taught me to avoid extremes and seek a middle path, so that tradition can guide growth and development, not prevent them.