“Wonder Showzen” — a great adult television show with puppets (think R-rated Sesame Street) — has a recurring segment called “Funny, Not Funny.” This might entail the emergence of an image of a kitten wearing sunglasses, accompanied by a chorus of children’s voices yelling, “Funny!” Next, a particularly gory photograph of road-kill might appear — “Not funny!”
Now the rules of the game have been established. Here’s another category for impeccable comic evaluation. I say “manorexia,” you say … well, probably shout: “That is a bastardization of the English language, the likes of which only William Safire would validate as a hip new portmanteau. That word is degrading to the realities of people suffering from dangerous disorders, and moreover introduces issues of deep-rooted sexism and social stereotype.”
Or, perhaps, you question the very existence of male eating disorders. Sure, lightweight crew guys drink light beer, wrestlers stick to vegetables at dinner and the trendiest boys wear pants skinnier than the average drainpipe.
But does this mean they have a medical disorder?
This past February, Harvard researchers conducted a national study of eating disorders and observed that 25 percent of those surveyed with anorexia and bulimia were men.
If statistics are not enough to prove the reality and prevalence of this issue, perhaps some Hollywood gossip will do so. In a 2006 interview with “Best Life Magazine,” actor Dennis Quaid spoke openly about his battle with manorexia. He described how he lost 40 pounds for a role by eating less than 600 calories a day. That the actor who played the dashing dad from “The Parent Trap” might have issues concerning body image is not an entirely shocking revelation. How often do we all (don’t deny it) pore over the US Weekly photo-spreads depicting ever-shrinking stars? Most of them may be women, but a titillating weight battle seems fair game for anyone in the limelight.
But manorexia isn’t just a Hollywood phenomenon.
Even Yale students have encountered men who harbor an unhealthy concern for keeping down their weight. To what do these Yale males attribute their unhealthy or disordered eating habits?
‘A Terrible Standard’
After giving up dessert for a year in an attempt to become more chiseled, Colin Adamo ’10 said he still worries about his physique.
“I’ve seen the trend recently in stores that male mannequins are impossibly chiseled and built, which creates a terrible standard,” Adamo said. “We watched the effects of store design like this in the past century tear apart young women. It’s difficult to watch as we do it again with young men.”
But men with disordered eating habits don’t get much sympathy from the general population, and weight-conscious guys don’t escape disparaging comments — even from friends whose mockery can range from humorous to harmful.
“I knew a guy who threw up a cheeseburger he just ate, so he’d have room for beer in his stomach,” John Gurrieri ’10 said. “One of my friends sat at lunch once and didn’t eat anything, and I called him a puss.”
Theories about who at Yale is most at risk of developing an eating disorder vary greatly, and it seems almost every type of male student feels pressure to try to conform to some impossible physical standard because men are as inundated with unrealistic images of physical “perfection” as women are.
Some assume that eating disorders primarily affect homosexual males, who are often stereotyped as caring more about their physical appearance than their heterosexual counterparts.
“I do have a gay friend who is very conscious about his weight and eats much less than I know he would like to,” Victor Alquicira ’10 said. “He tends to joke around to draw attention away from how serious it could be. It’s really sad that some gay guys feel they are judged on their physical attractiveness and thinness as much as women are in the heterosexual community.”
But just as eating disorders do not discriminate by sex, they also don’t discriminate by sexuality — or style, or sport. From fashion-savvy males to macho jocks, students interviewed said virtually all males are pressured to conform to some aesthetic.
Though he doesn’t know of anyone officially diagnosed with an eating disorder, Joshua Garcia ’09 said he would expect members of “youth artistic culture” to be among those most at risk for developing one.
“I would imagine that men who try to drastically shrink their bodies want to conform to a skinny jean/fitted tee look rather than a more athletic one,” Garcia said.
Others argue that athletes are the group most focused on maintaining a near-impossible physique through various, and often harmful, eating habits. The varsity lightweight crew team’s Facebook group description doesn’t do much to dispel this myth: “Eat less, work out more, be hungry.”
Former roommates of lightweight rowers, Gabriel Friedman ’10 and Alquicira, tell some harrowing stories of their companions’ behavior, but also distinguish between training rigorously and developing a medical problem.
“Sometimes when he came out of the shower, I would try to count all of his ribs before he could get from the common room to his room,” Friedman said.
Alquicira recalled that his roommate had fasted for a day or so during one particularly intense week before a regatta, but he characterized the eating habits of lightweight rowers as “unconventional,” rather than disordered. He agreed that lightweights do run the risk of developing a clinical problem, but said that immediately after a race most rowers tend to gain back whatever weight they previously lost.
But one lightweight rower supported the team’s eating habits as part of a necessary exercise regimen.
“Lightweight life is not a burden, but the price to be a member of an elite club of Champions,” Buttrick said in an e-mail defending the sport’s strenuous physical demands.
Popular wisdom aside, the male eating disorder is a much more pervasive phenomenon than can be attributed to one social group, because it is caused by more complex clinical and psychological issues than are created by a coach telling an athlete to sweat off a few pounds.
“There is a sizeable group of guys who fall into no particular risk category, but who suffer from eating disorders anyway,” Clay Chiles ’09 said. “Part of it might be due to the fact that just as women are bombarded with images of slim actresses and models all day every day, we see these TV commercials and magazine ads with attractive, chiseled, muscular men and think that’s what women expect us to look like. It’s a culture that engenders body dissatisfaction and which has a very disordered relationship with food in general.”
Ashamed of a ‘Girly’ Problem
Whether it’s social stereotype or athletic demand that encourages a preoccupation with body image, college is a likely place for self-consciousness to turn into a clinical problem. Kathryn Henderson — who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and is a research associate at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity — said many eating disorders emerge in college due to social and academic pressures.
“The average age of onset of anorexia is 14, and is 18 for bulimia — so yes, at 18 many people are starting college, which can then coincide with the onset of an eating disorder,” Henderson said in an e-mail. “Also, eating disorders are often precipitated by a stressor and leaving home to begin college can certainly be a stressor.̶
At Yale, in Hollywood or wherever a “stressor” may give rise to a disorder, the gender-specific term manorexia has serious implications for those it labels.
But why is there another category for men, and why has it been given such a ridiculous colloquial title?
“This definitely shouldn’t be a word,” Garcia said. “It is philologically unsound and draws … “Will and Grace” script fodder from what we must consider a serious problem. Those are the same reasons why we don’t say ‘ghettobesity’ or ‘Afro-AIDS.’ ”
Chiles expressed fear that the word manorexia serves more as a brand adopted by certain subcultures than as a description of a medical problem. For Chiles, manorexia is little more than a demarcation of a fringe style: emaciated emo-chic.
“I wonder if the appearance of manorexia as a fad word and its subsequent adoption by certain youth subcultures had something to do with the rise of the new skinny aesthetic for men that we see now on the streets and on the runways,” Chiles said. “Or did the rise of the skinny look allow the word to be more widely embraced? In any case, they seem to go hand in hand.”
Henderson lamented that it’s culturally acceptable for women to complain about their bodies and focus on their appearance, while such behavior is deemed effeminate among men.
“We don’t think of men engaging in these kinds of activities, generally speaking, so eating disorders don’t fit with our male stereotype,” she said. “That having been said, most women who struggle with eating disorders perceive there to be a stigma around the disorder for them as well.”
But those women who share the social stigma of an eating disorder aren’t necessarily sympathetic toward their male counterparts — largely because raising awareness of eating disorders has long been a female cause.
“Just when it seemed that there was nothing left for men to extract from women,” Mariama Diallo ’10 said, “they took anorexia away from us, too.”
There are many options for both women and men at Yale seeking more detailed information on, or treatment for, eating disorders. Henderson, who also serves as associate research scientist and clinical director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders, said the clinic offers individual and group cognitive-behavioral therapy for eating disorders, while other facilities on campus — such as the Yale Health Plan — offer their own forms of treatment. Yale also has a student-run Eating Concerns organization and the campus hosts events during Eating Disorder Awareness Week each February.
“People recover by persevering through a difficult struggle,” Henderson said. “We believe that change happens through active treatment, with a clear focus on goals to reduce symptoms.”
Yale’s Community Health Educators also inform middle and high school students in the New Haven community about eating disorders in their nutrition workshops, led by Bryna Harrington ’09.
“Eating disorders are an extremely difficult subject to approach, especially when teaching them,” Harrington said in an e-mail. “There have been some studies that have shown that students who have received eating disorder education workshops are actually more likely to develop an eating disorder or symptoms of disordered eating than groups that have not received any education at all.”
Even with access to numerous treatment facilities and copious information, many obstacles remain for patients trying to rid themselves of an eating disorder for good.
“As with breast cancer, rape, and domestic violence, men are dying because they’re too ashamed to come forward with their ‘girly’ problem,” Chiles said. “There are probably many more men suffering from eating disorders than we could imagine, but they won’t seek help for fear of being seen as feminine or even gay.”
Even the Yale Health Services Web site is gender-specific in its advice for confronting a peer about a disorder. What begins as general advice — “If you think a friend or loved one has anorexia, you can help” suddenly focuses without explanation on girls. “Talk to her. Tell her why you are worried. Let her know that you care,” it says.
Laughing in the Face of Danger
Ultimately, grappling with the reality of male eating disorders poses two difficulties: the funny and the not-funny.
What room is there for comedy in the wake of the shocking statistics and depressing reality of men’s dangerous obsessions with weight?
Sometimes the only way to convert a subject from the arena of the taboo, to that of the acceptable, to that of the ripe-for-reform is through humor.
So, true but not funny:
“Eating disorders are hard to hide from your friends,” Garcia said. “But also hard to confront a friend about.”
True and hilarious:
“I used to think that the rise of the lanky man above the bulky would be an equalizing factor in the deficit of male insecurity,” Kai Turner ’10 said. “But then boys looked better in slim cuts than girls.”