Ain’t That A Man?

Although eating disorders are more common in women, they’re a big issue for guys too. Many of the risk factors for men and women are the same – body fascism, for example, is just as pervasive in the pages of ‘Men’s Health’ as it is in ‘Cosmo’. Consider too, the purposes of an eating disorder – to deal with emotional conflict or stress, to create identity, to exercise control. These are human, rather than female concerns. And I wonder if women aren’t actually given more freedom than guys to express such dangerous emotions.

Last year, the ex-deputy PM, John Prescott revealed that he had been struggling with bulimia for more than twenty years. He said,

“I’ve never confessed it before. Out of shame, I suppose, or embarrassment – or just because it’s such a strange thing for someone like me to confess to. People normally associate it with young women – anorexic girls, models trying to keep their weight down, or women in stressful situations, like Princess Diana.”

The media delight in trumpeting the rise of the ‘metrosexual’ – aka a ‘heterosexual male who appears slightly gay due to his impeccable sense of style, belief in designer hygiene, and willingness to emote’. In some ways this sounds great. But within the confines of my social circles (admittedly not quite the hub of Western civilisation), such men are the exception rather than the rule. And to be honest, if Glen started shaving anything other than his face, I think I’d feel a little threatened.

But here’s an interesting statistic – approximately 10% of people with eating disorders are men and approximately 20% of men with eating disorders are gay, which is double the proportion of gay men in the population. There is debate about why this community is at particular risk – perhaps in part, because they are judged on attractiveness in the same way that women are in the heterosexual community. Fear of coming out and worry about rejection may also be contributing factors. But it helps to debunk the contemporary myth that a fluid and self-created identity results in greater self-acceptance.

Stephen Fry writes powerfully about his struggles with sugar dependence and body image in his autobiography .

His words are applicable not just to food, but the dynamics of any desire that can become an addiction.

‘To care about my body would be to suggest that I had a body worth caring about. Since my earliest years I felt nothing but shame for the useless casing of flesh I inhabit…It had nothing to recommend it beyond its function as a fuel cell for my brain and a dumping ground for toxins…

…From my very earliest consciousness I sensed with savage unswerveable certainty that other people were not seized by the same rapacious greed, insatiable hunger, overmastering desire, shivering lust and terrible, hurting need that had me in its grip almost every hour of every day…guilty connections came to be made in my mind between sugar and desire and satisfaction and desire and satisfaction and shame…

..To pay for sweets, I stole from shops, from the school and, most shamefully of all, from other boys. These acts of theft were conducted, like the eating, in an almost trance-like state. Shallow of breath, eyes glazed over, I would ransack the changing rooms and desks, my insides churning with fear, elation, dread and passionate self-disgust. At night I raided the school kitchens, homing in on the cupboard storing catering-sized blocks of raw jelly that I tore with my teeth, like a lion tearing an antelope…

..The rush of excitement as I stole and the rush from the sugar as I feasted on my kill inevitably ended – such is the way of passion – in the crash of guilt, melancholia, nausea and self-disgust that follow all such addictions…sugar, shopping, alcohol, sex, you name it’.
(Sunday Times, 12 September, 2010)

Masculinity is often equated with mastery – over one’s world, over others and especially, over oneself. To ‘man up’ is to repress ‘weak’ emotions. To be a man is to step out, to make an impact, to take charge. This was never going to be easy, even in the past, when traditional models of gender gave at least an indication of what was expected. How much more difficult to be a man now, when established roles have been completely overturned. And even the poster boys for machismo are not immune. In his autobiography, published two years ago, the formula one driver David Coulthard wrote about his struggle with the condition.

“In my mind the only way I could keep my weight down was by making myself vomit … I stopped eating fattening food and, before I knew what had happened, I was bulimic.”

From the boardroom to the bedroom, men are often dismissed as unnecessary. With a roll of the eyes and a few well-chosen words we dismiss an entire species. ‘Typical man, eh?’ ‘Can’t even take out the rubbish’. They’re lazy, pathetic, stupid, easily distracted, incompetent. Except of course…

Stephen Fry.
David Coulthard.
John Prescott.

These are leaders in their fields. Whatever we feel about their policies, their lifestyles or their sartorial choices. They are strong, intelligent, competent men,  feted in public and festooned with accolades. But they are also men driven to starve and to stuff. And if that’s a pressure for AlphaMan, you can be sure it’s more than an irritant to Joe Average too.

Success and competence don’t bring men peace, just as achievements or beauty barely dent a woman’s self-hatred. And when we discharge verbal vollies at our men, I’m guessing that they don’t just richochet. Emasculation can be accomplished more effectively with words, than a sharpened scapel.

And then we ask, ‘where have all the real men gone?’

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