‘Thinspiration’ not just women’s disease

By Brian Dukerschein

On the crowded catwalks of Milan Fashion Week, one model in particular captured attention for the wrong reasons. After appearing on the runway wearing a plunging Gianfranco Ferré dress, Canadian model Alana Zimmer was criticized around the world for being too thin. Since 2006, Milan Fashion Week organizers have made an effort to promote a healthier body image and banned female models with a body mass index under 18.5. A 5-foot-10-inch model would need to weigh at least 129 pounds to walk on a runway. It was thought the ban would protect female models and send the message that anorexia would not be condoned.

Unfortunately, female models are not the only ones who need protection from eating disorders. While witnessing the global condemnation Zimmer was receiving, I couldn’t help but think of a man I had read about some time ago.

Model Jeremy Gillitzer battled anorexia and bulimia for most of his adult life. Through a regime of chronic starvation, self-induced vomiting and relentless exercise, he whittled his body down to practically nothing.

When he died in 2010 at the age of 38, he weighed 66 pounds.

Although Gillitzer’s case is extreme, it serves as a reminder that eating disorders are not just battled by women. We live in an age in which men are increasingly bombarded with images of what constitutes a physical ideal. While the images vary among different groups in our culture—buff fraternity brothers high-fiving each other on the side of an Abercrombie & Fitch shopping bag, an Armani Exchange billboard full of lean muscles frolicking on the beach or the pale, waiflike faces staring back at you from a Burberry advertisement—the message is the same: We must all aspire to perfection.

Men are not immune to media’s powerful influence over body image. According to Caring Online, a Web-based resource for those battling eating disorders, between 10 and 15 percent of patients treated for eating disorders are men. This year, the U.K.’s National Health Service announced it has seen a 66 percent increase in the number of men hospitalized with anorexia and bulimia in the last decade. Experts in both countries believe hundreds of thousands of men remain undiagnosed and refuse to seek treatment because of the shame of having what is traditionally believed to be a “girl disease.”

Eating disorders in men can take many forms. Although male anorexia and bulimia are not uncommon, men are more likely to become preoccupied with having a more muscular physical shape, according to Dr. Theodore Weltzin, medical director of eating disorder services at Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc, Wis. Male eating disorders often begin with compulsive exercise combined with rigorous dieting in an attempt to reach an athletic ideal.

For other men, the disorder is very much about the glamorization of being thin. A YouTube search for “male thinspiration” yields more than 100 videos featuring montages of emaciated models, musicians and adolescent boys with concave chests and protruding hipbones. The videos serve as motivation to maintain one’s anorexia. “Stay strong and starve on,” read one description.

It is easy to believe male eating disorders are limited to the purview of gay men. After all, it could be argued gay culture places even more of an emphasis on fitness than straight culture. However, while studies have indicated homosexuals account for a significant percentage of male anorexics, straight men are just as likely to develop an eating disorder. In fact, many experts point to high rates of anorexia, bulimia and binge eating among high school and college athletes participating in sports that stress appearance and weight control, including wrestling, running and swimming.

I remember being in high school and seeing members of the wrestling team walking around carrying paper cups to spit in, hoping to make weight. After stepping down from the scale hours later, they would binge to the point of vomiting. I don’t recall anyone at the time suggesting this behavior was at all odd or unhealthy.

Since high school, I’ve had several friends—men and women—struggle with eating disorders. Some received treatment while others suffered in silence.

Men with eating disorders are too often overlooked and dismissed. It is time for everyone to recognize we are all susceptible to the intense pressures and unrealistic expectations of our society, and no one should feel ashamed about reaching out for help.