Why Eating Disorders are Surging Among American Men

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Why Eating Disorders are Surging Among American Men

By Nina Emkin 04/07/11
Anorexia: Not just for girls anymore Thinkstock

“At first, losing weight felt really good,” says Snowden Wright, a blue-eyed, brown-haired writer who’s been in recovery from anorexia for over a decade.  “Then as I lost more and more, feeling good wasn’t the point anymore.  It became, essentially, an addiction to starving myself."

You might imagine that this attractive, Ivy League-educated writer from Mississippi is a runway model or tightly wound, high achieving teenage girl. You may even guess it’s Johnny Weir.  But you’d guess all wrong. Snowden Wright, as it turns out, isn’t a girl at all. He’s a 29-year-old heterosexual man.

While eating disorders among straight guys don’t get nearly as much air time as stories about bulimic ballerinas and skeletal celebutantes, a full 10 percent of the approximately eight million Americans who suffer from eating disorders are male, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, a leading nutrition and diet expert. And she estimates that the number of men battling eating disorders “could be much higher because there are so many that are undiagnosed.” 

Consider Vic Avon, an attractive and soft-spoken 28-year-old construction worker from New Jersey.  When he was age 19, and feeling a bit flabby, he decided to embark on a strict diet by cutting out several major food groups from his daily regimen—including fruit, carbs, and grains. Gradually, more and more foods turned up on his don’t list.  “I allowed myself to eat three  things—lean meat, some cheese, and  broccoli—and that was it,” he says. “That was all I ate for six years.”  By the time the collegiate turned 25, his weight had dropped to a dangerous low, and he had turned into a barely functional anorexic.

Avon’s anorexia emerged after a lifetime of teasing. “For the first 19 years of my life,“ he says, “I was a heavy kid, and I was bullied to no end, so I was made to feel pretty worthless and very unaccepted. I felt like I didn’t deserve anything good in life.  Also, I grew up in a family where all my brothers were big, macho guys. When I was 19, during my sophomore year of college, I just said, ‘Screw it, I’m going to go on a diet,’ and that’s how it started.”

Wright, on the other hand, lost about 10 pounds of baby fat after a growth spurt, and was so taken with the positive reactions he received from the people around him that he decided to keep slimming down. “The attention from girls was great!” he says.  His weight eventually plummeted to 72 pounds—a fact he managed to conceal from his worried family for a short period of time by strapping water-filled shampoo bottles underneath his t-shirts when they ordered him to weigh in every week. “Anorexia wasn’t really known the way it is now,” he says. “I wasn’t aware of anybody around my age who’d had it, and especially any guy.  At that time, it was just unheard of.”

Leigh Cohn, the coauthor of Making Weight: Men’s Conflicts with Food, Weight, Shape & Appearance, concurs, saying that eating disorders in men are “often missed or misdiagnosed because they’re so low on the radar.  For many doctors,  it’s not something that even comes to mind.”  The tendency of physicians to miss the signs of eating disorders in men is precisely what allowed Wright to conceal his anorexia for so long.  And Avon admits that, while he recognized the debilitating effects of his disorder, he couldn’t identify the condition that he was suffering from: “I definitely didn’t think I had an eating disorder, because guys like me don’t have this problem,” he says.  “The only people who get eating disorders are teenage girls and gay men.”

That perception made it especially hard for Avon and Wright to seek treatment. For most heterosexual men, and even many homosexuals, anorexia carries an even greater stigma than it does for women. “It was incredibly difficult for me to face this problem because it’s always considered a girl’s disease,” Wright says. “There’s that macho thing where you feel like you can’t do anything girly.  It’s like being forced to wear pink.”  In fact, when a rumor floated among students in his high school that Wright was wasting away from tuberculosis, the embarrassed 14-year-old did nothing to quash it. He preferred people think he was afflicted with a grave disease rather than acknowledge that he had anorexia. And Avon’s family, while seemingly supportive of his efforts to recover, just “wanted a quick fix.” he says. “They didn’t really understand,” he says. “They looked at me like, ‘Just go eat a plate of macaroni and get through it.’”

Unfortunately it wasn’t that easy. For both men, only the threat of serious health problems proved sufficient to spur the recovery process in earnest.  A specialist consulted by Wright’s parents discovered through a bone scan that their son’s body had literally gone into stasis for two years—he’d stopped puberty in its tracks, and hadn’t grown an inch since he was 12. But Avon, like many people suffering from eating disorders, was remarkably resistant to treatment. He suffered through years of malnourishment, crippling depression, and three interventions before he finally entered an inpatient treatment program. He’s been in recovery since 2007.

Neither man can pinpoint why, exactly, he developed anorexia.  Avon was teased as a kid; Wright wasn’t.  Avon is from central Jersey, and Wright grew up in the South.  Avon works construction, and Wright is a writer.  They couldn’t be more different, but each ended up with the same disease.  Avon offers this hypothesis: “I’m a big believer that maybe I was born with the gun of anorexia, but society helped me load it and pull the trigger. I turned on the TV and saw magazines and everybody was so perfect.  I thought, ‘Maybe that’s what I need to be happy.’”

Both Avon and Wright were eventually able to reach healthy weights. But recovery doesn’t just end when the weight comes back. For long-term health, Taub-Dix recommends “a therapist, a registered dietitian, and support groups.”

Wright compares living with anorexia to living with alcoholism:  “I don’t think alcoholics ever stop being alcoholic.  You never stop wanting a drink; you just stop drinking.  There’s always kind of a trace of it in the back of my mind, but I don’t let that control my life. You just become extremely high-functioning.”

Avon is equally vigilant.  He regularly sees his therapist and dietitian, attends a support group every other week, and gives eating disorder awareness talks at local high schools.  But he says that despite his efforts, the old compulsion to starve himself still crops up occasionally.  When it does, though, instead of giving in to the urge, “I remind myself of all the bad stuff that came with the disease: depression, isolation, physical problems, loss of all my emotions.  When I think about that, I can’t logically pick a skinnier body over all that stuff.”

Perhaps one of the toughest challenges faced by a straight man with an eating disorder is admitting his illness to a woman.  Avon’s wife, whom he began dating before his eating disorder began, has been supportive. “She actually changed herself to try to better my life.  She cut people out of her life that were very detrimental to us and to my recovery. She did everything possible to educate herself in order to have a better understanding about the disease. She changed how she reacted to me in regards to urges…or triggers,” he says, and, “as a result, we’re both better people and we have a better relationship.” Wright, who is single, says that he doesn’t divulge the details of his past unless he’s in a serious relationship, explaining that, “It’s not particularly pleasant subject for me or anyone else.”

Bonnie Taub-Dix says that, while the basic pathology is similar for men and women with eating disorders, one of the triggers can be “competitive sports, where body shape and size are important, like gymnastics or crew or jockeys or wrestling.”  She adds, “I’ve heard of gyms where there are pails next to the machines in case men need to throw up because they’re pushing themselves to such an excessive degree.”  Despite some differences in triggers (because, of course, most girls don’t worry about their weight class for wrestling), Leigh Cohn says that anorexic men often display many of the same symptoms as anorexic woman. The only real disparity he notes is that exercise addiction is more common among men than women.

If there’s any consensus about male eating disorders (and there isn’t much, because the topic has been largely ignored by the medical community), it’s that recovery is only possible with treatment.  And treatment, of course, is only possible with the admission that a problem exists.  So, what’s a guy to do, in a culture like ours, where being a “man” means being stoic, looking like a Navy SEAL, and never admitting to weakness or vulnerability?

Avon offers some sage advice from his hard-won experience in the trenches of anorexia:  “They estimate that there are a million men with eating disorders out there.  I felt alone for so long, and that’s what kept me locked in my illness.  Do not be ashamed of who you are.  If you had cancer, you wouldn’t be ashamed of that.  It’s a disease.  It doesn’t make you defective, or less of a man.  It’s not easy, but you can get through it and beat it.”

Nina Emkin holds degrees from UCLA and Sarah Lawrence College and has written for DipDive and Citysearch. She currently lives in Los Angeles. She also wrote Coming Out as An Alcoholic.

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