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Comment: I’m not hungry – Gay men and eating disorders

Omar Hassan March 27, 2009

It is the day before my birthday. I walk into a high-end department store and pull a pair of 32-inch waist jeans off the rack. I head to the counter and pay for them, confident that they will fit comfortably when I get home.

But things weren’t always this easy. When I was thirteen, my medic father joked that I would one day succumb to gastric band surgery. This instilled a crisis of confidence in me, which encouraged long bouts spent hovering over the bathroom sink – shoving a toothbrush down my throat in an attempt to throw up.

Now, almost a decade later, the gender bias in the medical community suggests that men are still less likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder.

But with children as young as eight being treated for anorexia it should come as no surprise that the number of grown men suffering from physical insecurity is on the rise.

In fact, a presentation at the American Dietetic Association’s Food and Nutrition Conference revealed that at any given time, 25 per cent of men are on a diet, with over 40 per cent complaining that they are dissatisfied with their bodies. Where do gay men fit into all of this?

The non profit organisation, Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. (ANRED) found that gay men make up over 40 percent of males suffering from eating disorders, despite only occupying approximately five to ten per cent of the population.

Travis Mathews, the director and counselor behind the documentary film ‘Do I Look Fat?’ believes that gay men (not unlike women) are more likely to develop such habits because they have historically been subject to more negative feedback from society.

Mathews informed me that societal prejudice prevents gay men from developing a sense of security, which makes them “more likely to use outside influences as a barometer of [their] wellbeing”.

“However, what is most unique to gay men is [that] body obsession [is used] as a reaction to a long-standing sense of emasculation”, notes Mathews. Undeniably, “whether it is implicit or explicit, most gay men have experienced bullying” and in light of this, “they have had to struggle with what masculinity means to them”.

For many men, they try to overcompensate by becoming ‘hyper-masculine’ – symbolically overturning what used to be an effeminate body. This preoccupation can often lead to Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), or a ruthless obsession with slight defects in appearance. This leads to further abuses involving over exercise, supplements and steroids.

According to Brad Kennington, (a director of an eating disorder treatment centre in Texas), “while women tend to focus on weight, men focus on shape, spending hours in the gym [in the belief] that this will make them feel desired, wanted and empowered.” In turn, the gay man’s body becomes his identity. He uses it as a means to assert his manliness and to disavow the curvier, voluptuous female body type.

Because of self-perpetuating peer pressure, it becomes a common belief that attributes such as narrow hips and flat stomachs are what define masculinity. And so, gay men often believe that they must aspire to these norms in order to be worthy of another gay man’s love.

On the other hand, some gay men respond to this community pressure by overeating, developing a love-hate relationship with food. One such case occurred to a man called Stu, who is portrayed in Mathews’ documentary.

Stu complains that he found himself isolated from the gay community because of his size and insists that his only coping mechanism was through further binge eating. Ironically, Stu states that the happiest time in his life was when he developed AIDS and rapidly lost 70 lbs.

Dr Ted Weltzin of Rogers Memorial Hospital argues that this kind of physical vulnerability is a product of low self-esteem. The stresses of coming-out, dealing with the reactions of family, friends and strangers is often a matter that is out of a gay man’s control.

By developing a physical obsession, a homosexual man can now modulate how he feels. He can develop a psychological sense of control and this becomes addictive, like any form of drug abuse. Starving, binging, purging and over-exercising start to make him “feel high”, concludes Weltzin.

After all this, one must ask, how this physical obsession perpetuates itself? Researchers at the University of Central Florida discovered that men who watched television commercials with muscular actors felt unhappy about their own physiques.

This led them to the conclusion that the “culture of masculinity” may be linked to eating disorders and steroid abuse. Further to this, it is hard to deny that to some extent, the gay press might propagate this sense of low self-esteem.

Mathews argues that “like any press [the gay press] feeds on what it sells”. The resulting images of the impossible to achieve ‘Adonis figures’ continue the spread of low self-esteem and encourage a desire to buy products that may improve their appearance–propelling the nasty cycle of physical obsession.

The irony here, Mathews argues, is that gay men have in themselves become bullies. By enforcing physical ideals, they are bullying each other into conforming to generalised standards that may be unhealthy.
Dr Weltzin notes that the best way to deal with this problem is to recognise that the emotions that come with being a homosexual, are not bad. By finding alternative ways to deal with their low self-esteem, gay men will be able to avoid such isolating and debilitating illnesses.

However, Matthew Breen, the executive editor of The Advocate (America’s foremost LGBT news source) argues that the male ideal of the gym-built body is “not a function of the gay media” but of “the mainstream media”, he said speaking from his LA office.

He also points out that the aspirational nature of the gay press is largely the reason why men consume it. He even goes as far as to state that “to hope for [the] day when the hot models with six-pack abs go away to be entirely replaced in the media by average Joes of all shapes and sizes is futile. It won’t happen and if it did [many] publications would wither from lack of audience.” This goes for both straight and gay publications.

This commentary is mirrored by evidence from Professor Hubert Lacey of St George’s Hospital in London who reported that she had treated more male than female anorexia referrals for the first time in the summer of 2008. This information suggests that there need not be as much of a stigma placed on men (gay or straight) who struggle with their physical appearance.

In 2008, eminent designer Tom Ford penned an essay challenging both the press and the public to change their hostile attitude towards the image of the naked male body. His argument is that society’s antagonism has conditioned us to believe that only one form of beauty is acceptable.

Maybe now is the time to let go of this view and to allow men of all shapes and sizes a place in the forum. Advocate editor Breen believes that the gay press is more ‘complex’ than before and that they are increasingly willing to cater to variety, as opposed to a ‘single ideal’.

Perhaps then, the gay press will attempt to strike a balancing act between the images of ‘perfection’ and more natural physiques, as this would allow the community to come to terms with its beautiful and inherent diversity.

Undeniably this kind of attitude towards the masculine model will help men like myself, who have tirelessly fought to conform to the status quo.

Omar is a writer and freelance journalist. He has also been involved with a range of TV production companies, working predominantly in the area of factual programming. Born in Cairo, Egypt, he has lived in the U.S.A and Saudi Arabia and currently resides in the United Kingdom.

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