If we ask you to picture a person with an eating disorder, you're almost always going to imagine a young white woman. That's just how the media portrays it, as a disease that makes thin females purge their salads so they can fit into their new dress. But while males make up only an estimated 5 to 15 percent of anorexics and bulimics, that's exactly 5 to 15 percent more than the culture at large expects.
We talked to Alex and Steven, who have eating disorders, and Brian Pollack, a therapist who specializes in them. All three have struggled to convince the world that this is even a thing.
6Eating Disorders Come Out Of Nowhere
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So, why do guys develop eating disorders? There's no answer that is going to make perfect sense to you, since voluntary starvation is about the least logical thing an otherwise healthy organism can do. In Alex's case, his disorder developed in the summer before sixth grade, thanks to a mixture of stress and daytime TV.
"I started going through puberty, so there were body issues. The trigger was such a strange thing. I was outside playing and had the TV on in the garage. [Maury] had kids who were 5 years old and over 100 pounds. I remember being fascinated and disgusted. I hate to use that word now, but as a kid you're grossed out. I also remember being super hungry that day. I ate too much. The next day I wasn't hungry. I figured, well, I ate a shit-ton yesterday. And then the day after, I wasn't hungry again. And the day after that. And then I started getting hungry but I didn't want to eat. The next thing I knew, I had barely eaten anything for a week, and it snowballed from there," he says.
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At least it wasn't a paternity episode. Testing your dad's DNA every day sounds incredibly expensive.
Steven, meanwhile, doesn't remember a specific trigger. It just sort of happened, like that summer you got really into ska. "When I graduated high school, I went off the deep end dieting," he says. "I went from 185 to 120 pounds. I was down to just drinking a cup of coffee and maybe snacking on a few almonds throughout the day. I thought I looked really good, and everyone at work was like, 'Oh, wow, you're really doing a good job!'"
Yeah, that's the other thing. Even when Steven's own doctor told him he had a problem (after he collapsed at work), all his friends were saying, "Hell yeah, you have a problem. You've gotten dangerously attractive." He says, "Everyone saw me as the fat kid. So all my friends were just like, 'Wow, you look great!' When I joined a gym, I was like 120 pounds. And I told this trainer [about my weight loss] and he was immediately like, 'Oh, way to go, good job!' So there's a lot of negative reinforcement."
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"Let's work on eliminating those pesky almonds, bro. Double-digits, here we come!"
Therapist Brian Pollack says it's common for men to get this kind of feedback: "[Some men] utilize the gym as a bulimic behavior. A 'lean' or 'muscular' male may gain the attention and respect of the people around him, but what they often don't know is that this individual is restricting their [food] intake, spending enormous amounts of time in the gym, and eating in such a controlled manner that it causes them to become further obsessive about their body and more isolative due to the demands of the lifestyle. All signs of bulimia, but oddly seen as healthy in our society."
It's interesting how Alex and Steven's own stories almost downplay the causes -- after all, who didn't have body issues at that age or lose their appetite after an episode of Maury? But these guys didn't stop dieting once they reached what society says is a sexy weight -- they kept starving themselves to the point of system failure. If you find that behavior baffling, well, you are not alone.
5When The Patient Is Male, They'll Try Every Other Diagnosis First
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We're not saying eating disorders are easier for women to deal with (it's not a competition!), but there is at least some awareness of eating disorders in females. Somewhere out there is a mother who started worrying her daughter had an eating disorder the first time she skipped lunch. But if you're a guy, you'll have better luck convincing people that you're skipping meals because you're a Kryptonian who feeds directly from the Sun.
Which is bullshit, because for some Kryptonians, the exact opposite is true.
Alex barely ate for months, but his parents never considered the possibility that he had an eating disorder. "It wasn't like I was hiding it," he says. "But no one ever thought to discuss it in terms of 'Your son has an eating disorder.' And looking back, I can't believe all the hoops we jumped through just to avoid that."
Instead, Alex, his parents, and his many doctors all thought it was a physical condition, he says. "I would tell people that it felt like I was choking, like there was something stuck in my throat. The doctor even said my throat was red and raw, but they think it happened retroactively -- my stomach started digesting itself and having flare-ups. So it was a self-fulfilling prophecy: my body broke down and it became real."
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The only time you should ever eat stomach is when it's haggis, and even then only when you're too hammered to know better.
Everyone went all-out to avoid the mere suggestion of an eating disorder, to the point where it cost his parents serious money. "My parents and doctors were willing to bend themselves backwards to give me more and more expensive tests, consider weirder and weirder conditions, instead of just broaching the topic. And this was over three months, when I was eating the bare minimum I needed to function," he says.
According to Pollack, it's common for doctors to assume it's a physical issue in men. Because what man doesn't love chowing down on a steak? "It isn't on their radar, and the resources and education isn't readily available. When a man has trouble with his gastrointestinal tract, they don't take into consideration the patterns of eating -- they just want their constipation to go away. The reported difficulty is not the eating or the thinking surrounding the intake of food; it's the fact that they are having stomach problems. Specialists are called in and tests are done. The process gets distorted."