There’s a growing acknowledgment that women/feminine-presenting people are not the only people who get eating disorders. Increasingly, headlines proclaim that “men get eating disorders too!” and note that the stereotype that eating disorders are a “girl thing” is tired and problematic. This is great – anything that breaks down the well-entrenched notion that only young, rich, skinny, white, cis- and hetero girls are the only ones to get eating disorders is a welcome move in my opinion.
However, are we just reinscribing gender norms and the focus on body image and body ideals in the way we talk about eating disorders in boys and men? I just finished reading an article by Wright, Halse & Levy (2015) asking just this question. The article provides a compelling argument for re-visioning how we talk about eating disorders amongst boys and men.
Wright, Halse & Levy explore discourses around eating disorders in general and amongst boys and men in particular to make their point. In brief (and in the Foucaultian sense) discourses are methods of creating and reinforcing knowledge. Discourses have and reinforce power; they are socially situated and come to be taken as “truths” to explain social phenomena and attribute causes for social issues. They are not static but rather shift and change as people negotiate or reinforce dominant discourses and/or advance alternate framings. Discourses are not “good” or “bad,” but multiple and movable – thinking in terms of discourses can help us to understand what we think is “true” in a particular time and space, and how this relates to power and privilege in society.
One venue where discursive framings play out is the media – media outlets participate in the repetition of truth claims, which in turn crystallizes or reinforces discourses. Medical authorities and academics also participate in the perpetuation and repetition of discourse, sometimes with even more authority (if less visibility) than media outlets. Wright, Halse & Levy suggest that how eating disorders amongst boys & men are currently framed borrows from 2 authoritative discourses around eating disorders:
- That eating disorders in girls and women are deeply tied to body ideals and body dissatisfaction, specifically the thin ideal
- That eating disorders in boys and men are tied to body ideals for masculinity, notably the muscular ideal
You can already see the problematic binaries between men and women, masculine and feminine, muscular and thin crop up in these dominant (and simplistic) discourses. Nonetheless, the repetition of this type of attribution for eating disorders is everywhere.
Importantly, it is not untrue to say that men are subject to impossible body ideals – it is no less true to say that there is a muscular ideal and that men may be held to impossible standards for appearance than it is to say that there are problematic and objectifying images of women everywhere you turn. However, there is more to the picture of why men and boys are getting eating disorders – just as there is more to the picture for people of any gender.
To make their point, Wright, Halse & Levy analyse several “family biographies” – that is, interviews with caregivers and children to understand their specific, situated, and complex eating disorder story. Children ranged from 9-14. The stories reveal the complexity of eating disorders in preteen boys and help to disturb this basic assumption that we can take a (flawed) narrative around the causal relationship between body dissatisfaction and eating disorders amongst girls and women and apply it to boys and men.
The case studies the authors present demonstrate the “other social sources from which boys might derive anxieties about their bodies” (p. 6) beyond media-perpetuated appearance ideals – for instance, the widespread hatred and marginalization of fat bodies, particularly of otherwise-oppressed fat bodies (i.e. along ethinicity/class/gender/ability etc. lines) and societal focus on anti-obesity endeavors. Looking at masculinity as a construct requires us to look beyond simply “wanting muscles” as a driver for eating disorders. We need to look, too, at the conflicting messages boys receive about how to enact masculinity – for instance, messages about being strong and powerful.
Beyond just wanting muscles for aesthetic reasons, the authors draw our attention to the moralizing connotations of muscularity. Fat bodies are socially coded as weak and lazy; masculinity is associated with strength. Failing to enact masculinity has real social fallout and material consequences for boys (and, I’d argue, women and non-gender-binary folks as well in some cases, particularly in our highly individualizing society). The body is one way of “demonstrating” masculinity – not for vanity, but in relation to the social consequences of not enacting masculinity.
The authors also explore the role of anxiety in the boys’ eating disorders. Beyond any aesthetic ideals, the family interviews revealed how much of the boys’ distress around food was deeply tied into anxiety, panic attacks, and obsessive compulsive behaviours. Again, this is not unique to boys and men – others have noted the significant anxiety often present in eating disorders for people of all genders. Still, it highlights the need to look beyond media representations when exploring eating disorders.
Why does it matter whether we frame eating disorders amongst boys and men as borne of media idealization or something else? I would argue that it matters enormously. Even though the differences I articulated above seem subtle (i.e., pursuit of muscular ideal vs. navigating discourses of masculinity), they speak to the need to look at social roles and anxiety in understanding eating disorders.
Eating disorders are not caused by the media. Let me repeat: eating disorders are not caused by the media. Equally, the media itself has a pretty tough time navigating reporting about eating disorders. Whether it’s showing before and after photos or stock images of tape measures around apples or calling those with eating disorders “anorexics,” the media does a pretty crummy job at telling us the truth about eating disorders.
Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that the narrative of “passive victim falls prey to idealized images from mass media” gets flipped on its head for men and boys with eating disorders. Instead of looking at the social roots of inequality and the ways in which we are all held responsible for normalizing our bodies (while at the same time making sure that we’ll never actually be able to achieve this norm, especially if bodies are somehow different), we hear about how boys want more muscles. Full stop. No interrogation of what muscularity means, socially. No discussion of the anxiety provoked by living in a society in which productivity and moral value is read onto bodies. No nuance, no complexity.
This article adds a little nuance to the picture we get that slots eating disorders amongst boys and men into the tired old stereotypes we have about eating disorders in general. By exploring family interviews, the authors challenge “the media myth [which] still works to reduce and simplify a complex and varied set of conditions operating distinctly, and differently, for each boy, mother, and their families” (p. 16).
Wright, J., Halse, C., & Levy, G. (2015). Preteen Boys, Body Image, and Eating Disorders Men and Masculinities, 19 (1), 3-21 DOI: 10.1177/1097184X15575158