Eating Disorders and Gay Male Culture

By Zacharias, Jeffrey | Addiction Professional, November/December 2012 | Go to article overview

Eating Disorders and Gay Male Culture


Zacharias, Jeffrey, Addiction Professional


If one were to read many of the popular magazines aimed at a male demographic, particularly those skewed to the LGBT population, images of what is considered masculine or desirable would be visible front and center. Ryan Reynolds, Channing Tatum, Ryan Gosling - shirtless photos of these men and many others along with their sixpack abs serve as a major selling point for items ranging from clothing to movies. For many men, particularly those who identify as gay, these media images or what's attractive aren't necessarily in line with the reality or their body shapes or sizes. What used to be an issue acknowledged more readily in the female population, eating disorders and/or disordered eating patterns, is becoming more prevalent among males.

In addition, there appears to be a stronger vulnerability to these problems in the gay male population. And if a drug addiction and/ or alcoholism is already present, this can produce a complex treatment puzzle with a multiplicity of issues. So why is it that gay men are seeming to fall more and more into the trap or process addictions such as eating disorders?

Cultural factors

Gay male socio-culture places a premium on physical appearance, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in the gym - a place where heightened masculinity is on display. With many gay men not feeling pleased with their body "just as it is," the gym can oe a breeding ground for increased dissatisfaction. At its extreme, body dysmorphia can be the end result, personified by an individual looking in the mirror and literally seeing something reflected back at him that doesn't match the reality of what's there.

Even within the gay male population, there are numerous variations on attitudes toward body shapes/sizes, and with those variations spring a variety of eating disorders. There are "twinks" - those who place significance on youth and being thin, thus perhaps inviting in restricted eating. At the other end of the spectrum are "bears" - those who eschew the predominant gay cultural visual of being overly thin and lean toward having more weight and/or muscle mass. This perhaps could bring about some forms of overeating, thus contributing to yet another form of disordered eating.

None of this is to say that all gay men fall on the continuum of eating disorders, but there is stronger evidence being shown that the gay male population is more susceptible to these issues than previously known. Some of the factors contributing to this issue are internalized homophobia and not wanting to appear/act feminine, social anxiety, depression, and feelings of selfconsciousness strengthened by the comparisons gay men might make among themselves.

According to a recent study conducted by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and the National Development and Research Institute, gay men are three times more likely than heterosexual men to have an eating disorder. This research found that 15% of gay men report having some form of eating disorder in their lifetime, ranging from binge eating to bulimia to anorexia.

Growing evidence of the prevalence of male eating disorders was recently found in a survey by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), which found a 66% increase in hospital admissions for men with eating disorders in the last decade in the UK alone.

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