It is well known that society has and continues to put an unbelievable amount of pressure on women to look ‘pretty’ according to the former’s standards. An inability to cope with such pressure or to meet the standards may result in body disorders, though not all women succumb to this pressure. Anorexia is one of these common disorders. Yet, it is instructive to note that men can suffer the same fate as women in this regard, albeit on a smaller scale. One of the reasons male anorexia has been understudied is the gendered nature with which anorexia has been perceived; anorexia has conventionally thought to be a ‘female’ problem where only women are obsessed with having a thin body.
So, how can guys be anorexic too? Or rather, what goes through the mind of a guy who is anorexic?
Cultural assumptions of the male body range from the “muscular, bodybuilder” type to the “lean, slim and fit” type. Although there are body disorders such as muscular dysmorphia that result from an obsession with gaining and maintaining muscles, I will just focus on the group of men who strive to be “lean, slim and fit”. One theory provided by the South Australian Anorexia Bulimia Nervosa Association is that men who are anorexic see anorexia as a source of healthy competition among themselves. In gender socialization, men have been brought up to exhibit competitiveness and even aggression in social markers such as their careers and heterosexual relationships. In extreme cases, men seek to aggressively limit their intake of food to see who can be the thinnest and sickest. Rather, self-starvation can be seen as a marker for which man can endure the most pain and hence who is “man enough”. Now, although these findings are not meant to generalize about all male anorectics, it is still an important finding as it shows how male anorectics positively position themselves in relation to each other rather than in relation to medical opinion on anorexia which views anorexia as a mental illness.
However, anorexia today is seen as largely a feminine phenomenon, as mentioned earlier. Browsing through blogs and forums written by male anorectics, it is easy to sense the frustration of male anorectics who are asked if they are a homosexual. The premise of masculine ideology lies on the presence of two binaries: masculinity vs femininity and heterosexuality vs homosexuality. Since both femininity and homosexuality are ideologically antithetical to masculinity, and since anorexia is perceived as a disorder only girls can get, the societal understanding of male anorectics tends to revolve around the questioning of his sexuality since he wants to be more feminine. While female anorectics struggle to achieve a body in tandem with societal standards of beauty, male anorectics go through an additional struggle of being questioned of their sexuality.
To conclude, it is equally pertinent to understand the experiences of men who suffer from anorexia just as it is to understand women’s. Anorexia is not just an illness women suffer from.