This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
The traditional idea of masculinity is one that can be expressed in a number of different ways. A masculine man is someone who is virile, macho, strapping, rugged, robust, powerful, testosteronic.
At least, that's what the internet tells me. But with the rise of the dadbod—a term used to describe the men giving up chiseled abs for a little bit of chub, the definitive nature of the ideal male image has entered an even greyer area. Is a man meant to be bear-like and squishy? Is husking up the true ideal for a man, or is it about having the discipline to diet down until that six pack pops? These questions, which have been twisted and contorted by memes and buzzword columnists, have serious implications in the real world for men who secretly scrutinise every inch of their appearance.
Over the last month, I've been reading the jokes and takedowns on dadbod, of which the consensus seems to be: look at how easy it is to be a slightly out of shape guy and still considered handsome in our society. It's a form of male privilege, sure, but as a guy with an eating disorder, I really don't fucking want it.
Although relatively unspoken of outside of help groups and internet forums, eating disorders in men exist: The National Association for Anorexia and Associated Disorders (ANAD) estimates that at least 24 million people in the United States suffer from a clinical eating disorder of some form, with around 10 percent of that number being men. In Canada, statistics aren't as reliable, but decade-old government surveys pin roughly 1.5 percent (or 470,400, based on 2002 population) of 15 to 24 year olds in Canada with some form of an eating disorder, and anywhere from nine to 15 percent of them are male.
With no shame, I admit that I was, and am, one of them. For as long as I can remember, I've been self-conscious of my body. Growing up, I was known as the chubby kid who was abysmal at sports. It wasn't uncommon for both boys and girls, along with their fathers and mothers, to point out that fact and, whether intentionally or not, pick on me. Being a guy, I always got the vibe or verbal command from others to just laugh it off. So, I did, and buried it inside me.
In private, however, it always found a way out.
When it comes to eating disorders, men tend to be swept under the rug in most discussions about the topic, a problem that York University psychology professor Jennifer Mills says is largely due to the different societal expectations that men and women face when it comes to ideal body types.
"I think that the fact that men's ideal body shape is more broadly defined than that of women is one of the reasons why being a man protects people from developing an eating disorder," she said. "The ideal body shape is not as extreme or rigidly defined as it is for women."
One of the reasons Mills says there's a lack of awareness when it comes to male eating disorders is due to how males have embraced exercise as a way of coping with eating disorders. Where some females tend to simply eat less out of a desire to be thin or develop bulimia as a way to counteract overeating, males attempt to rationalise weight loss through dieting and overeating by training harder and more frequently. The excessive working out helps obscure the underlining issues in men with eating disorders, because people are unlikely to shame them for being too healthy.
"Men still make up very small numbers of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. They are relatively more likely to be diagnosed with 'eating disorder not otherwise specified,' because they don't quite fit into those two diagnoses," Mills says. "For instance, some men lose a lot of weight through dieting, but don't quite meet the BMI cut-off for anorexia nervosa. Or they compensate for binge eating with exercise, not purging."
I can certainly attest to this fact: a few months before my 16th birthday, after screaming at a 4 AM post-binge reflection of myself in the bathroom mirror, I went to sleep with a determination to wake up the next morning and ask my parents to pull the old, rusty weight set out of the garage for me and set it up in the basement.
The next day, my dad had set up a bench, a bar, and some dumbbells, all without a peep or cast of judgement from parents. Thus, the real phase of my battle against my image began.
Over the next few years, up to the very point that I type these words, I would scrutinise every single thing I ate and constantly worry about if I was burning enough energy throughout the day. It started simple enough: fried chicken turned to chicken breast, pizza turned to pistachios. Before long, I was counting my calories with an online app, weighing my food with a scale. I became involved with bodybuilding and weightlifting communities, figured out a way to rationalize my unhealthy relationship with food through periods of "bulking" and "cutting," and generally, on the surface, seemed OK to my friends and family.
For some people, eating disorders manifest into what researchers and doctors refer to as " body dysmorphia": a condition in which a person sees a more highly-negative version of their appearance than actually exists.
For some insight, although I've never been officially diagnosed with body dysmorphia, I've spoke to doctors who suggested I likely have it. All it takes is for me to look at an old photo of myself to realise that, despite thinking I almost always look like shit and need to work harder, I probably look just fine in the eyes of others.
Dr. Flanders, a Toronto paediatrician with a special interest in eating disorders, describes the gap that those with body dysmorphia face between simply wanting to look better and permanently hating their image as "a difference in perception."
"Someone with body dysmorphic disorder literally see/feels something that is different from reality," he said. "The classic example is the thin anorexic girl who looks in the mirror and sees the reflection of a fat person in the mirror. For a male it could look like this: a strong muscular boy looks in the mirror and sees a weak scrawny body reflecting back."
While the pursuit of lithe bodies like Justin Bieber and Beckham is undeniably more prominent in today's society, it wasn't always that way. Many of the sex symbols from decades past hid their abs and muscles under hair, grit, and flab, despite being hustled out as the showrunners of male sex appeal.
Now, with many Hollywood actors getting that superhero physique from steroids and HGH, it's obvious, like the much-talked-about beauty standards of women, for men, things too have changed.
One image I distinctly remember from my childhood is the countless times standing in the shower, staring down at my stomach, grabbing at my skin, and secretly wishing I could just tear it off. Certainly, images of male actors I saw on TV and movies influenced that feeling, and if men and women think alike at all, Mills says parallels can probably be drawn.
"I think it's reasonable to expect that the same kinds of things that lead to the development of eating disorders in women, do so in men," she says. "Internalising a slender, idealised body type leads to body dissatisfaction."
But despite what may seem like an evolving standard of male beauty, Flanders says that much of the development of such conditions may just be unavoidable.
"The underlying cause for eating disorders is still not very well understood. We suspect, however, that there is a fairly strong genetic component," says Flanders. "There are also some common mental health struggles that some people with eating disorders share including low self-esteem, perfectionism, impulsive behaviour, and difficulty maintaining healthy relationships."
According to organisations like ANAD and NEDIC, those with eating disorders often harbour other demons like depression and social anxiety as well. While I can't claim a scapegoat for why my brain thinks this way, nor am I qualified enough to render a verdict on what should be but isn't being done to protect both boys and girls from developing such a horrible condition, I can say this: the privilege of being male has inherently become the burden of being expected to exercise it.
In a way, being told to toughen up and "act like a man" has created a desire for me to never be satisfied and to never complain. While I still recognise that I have an eating disorder and probably will forever have to cope with it, it's something I've learned to manage.
At the end of day, even if I've learned how to cope with my fight against myself, I think it's important to speak about all of this openly. I also hope other men speak up so that the next generation doesn't have to deal with the standards I felt I had to, because really, even if society changes it's tune about how men should act, I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to do the same for myself.
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