A Unique Resource for Treating Eating Disorders and Body Dissatisfaction
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by Dr. Deah on Sep.15, 2011, under Tasty Morsels: by Dr. Deah Schwartz

For women of a certain age, the slogan, “You’ve come a long way baby,” will light up memories of a certain ad for a certain cigarette.  In 1968, capitalizing on the feminist movement, a brand of smokes was introduced with an ad campaign intentionally targeted towards women.  Never mind that the slogan used a demeaning term for women or that using the product was suspected to shorten the very lives being recognized for having come such a long way; the ad was specifically designed to recruit new women smokers or seduce women smokers to wrap their lips around Virginia Slims.

Yes, the cigarette was actually called Virginia Slims and it was a very slim and slender cigarette; dainty and frilly and oh so feminist.  Take a deep breath now and inhale the irony that the Women’s Tennis Association Tour was sponsored by Virginia Slims back in the day. Ahh those were the days…days of feminist fire breathing tennis players.  But lest you think this is a tale of a time long ago, in 1990 Virginia Slims introduced their Virginia Slims Super Slim 100’s! Because we all know you can’t get slim enough!  Four years later, we were asked to suck on their Virginia Slims Kings…ironic really.  I would think that a cigarette with such strong feminist roots would call their product Virginia Slims Queens.  But perhaps that is more telling than it seems.

As I write this piece, it is fall, and no longer the 1990’s.   For most of the country, this means leaves changing colors, people turning back the clocks, and fashion articles about runway shows with special magazine inserts devoted to style style style.  And like the swallows to Capistrano, we are “visited” by the token plus size “fashionista” article, the outrage of underage underweight girly model stories, and pieces by writers like me opining away about the cancerous proliferation of eating disorders.

But this year, as I thumbed through the Style Magazine of the N. Y. Times, I noticed a drastic difference in the models; The MALE models.  Without exception, each was exceedingly thin, dressed in clothing that hung on them like shrouds…shapeless and limp.  Toothpicks of men standing next to toothpicks of women.  In the wake of hurricane Irene, I couldn’t help but flash on images of trees snapped in half by the wind as I looked at these bodies barely able to stand; looking equally frail and vulnerable.

Body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, once completely associated with girls and women, are now increasing among boys and men. Because I work in the field of ED (Eating Disorders, NOT Erectile Dysfunction a totally different male affliction) I have been aware of this trend for a while via journal articles and conference sessions.  What has been missing for me, however, was seeing evidence of this in my day to day life. Unfortunately, the prevalence of ED and Body Image issues among girls and women cannot be ignored. Every day is a new day filled with reminders of that cultural trend, but I hadn’t been bombarded with the male side of it until now.

A few days later, I read the article, “For Once the Guys Go First,” in which Eric Wilson writes about the male fashions during fashion week.  He is excited that the men are finally getting top billing in this predominantly female-centric arena, one of the few I might add, and the article did a spectacular job of keeping up with the “Janeses” by including the mandatory accompanying photos of models looking blankly into the camera.  One photo stood out; a rail thin soldier boy startling in his apathetic and anemic pose and pout.  If these are the boys being shipped overseas to fight in wars of “men” I’m afraid for their lives. Honestly, I think I could take them down in hand to hand combat.  Kidding aside, my heart ached for them and I wondered why are men volunteering for a war that doesn’t need to be waged?  In the past, male eating disorders were frequently triggered by photos of buff muscular men with biceps like big cigars and abs like…well…six packs.  Male body image dissatisfaction was centered around not being manly enough, and not wanting to look like the 98 pound weakling on the beach. Some folks will say this is progress! Skinny men are considered beautiful now.  Woo hoo!  And I’m not saying that skinny men aren’t attractive but at the risk of being a Dr. Deah Downer, this is a different brand of potential body hate that will ignite a different set of disordered eating behaviors tragic and as potentially deadly as tar and nicotine.

One of the true signs that a legitimate problem exists is if there is an association devoted to the problem.  I visited the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders (N.A.M.E.D.) website and had an email exchange with its director Christopher Clark.  Mr. Clark was very helpful and the newly updated website is filled with informative articles, resources, and statistics for anyone seeking more information or guidance.  It also provided ample proof that eating disorders is no longer just a female problem and that men have succeeded in breaking through the not so enviable glass ceiling of eating disorders and body dissatisfaction.  Females may still be leading the pack, but the males, unfortunately, are gaining ground.  This is not what the Equal Rights Movement had in mind, is it?

You’ve come a long way baby.


10 comments for this entry:
  1. Mary Anne Cohen

    You are such a good writer! I really enjoyed your perceptions on men and body image. May I add one additional “tasty morsel”: an advertisement for a New York gym ominously warned men, ‘No pecs? No sex!’

  2. Susan Koppelman

    Really nicely written! And oh, so sad. I’ll be waiting to read what you have to say next about fat guys.

  3. Christian

    In today’s times, it seems that all male models must be anorexic. What do you think, the prevalence rate is for eating disorders in male models? Dr. Deah, obiously other problems are going on in the lives of these people who fall prey to eating disorders, but what do you think puts males or females over the edge with images from the media about having to have the ideal body?

  4. Dr. Deah

    I appreciate all of the comments that are coming in about this topic! And I have no doubt that the male models are only the front runners of the “movement” towards male eating disorders. Christian, some thoughts: I believe there is a cumulative effect involved. The media, is everywhere, everyday, it seeps into the culture and becomes part of the fabric, internalized and incorporated until we believe the message. I am also a firm believer in following the money. If we are sold a “product” of self-hate, then we can be sold the magical solution of “self-love.”

  5. vesta44

    I’ve been seeing this for the last 5 years with my step-grandson. He’s 17 now, tall and thin, and obsesses about his weight. Kids he’s gone to school with have called him fat for years, and he’s never been fat, but that epithet seems to be the most hurtful one kids can hurl at other kids when they want to be bullying assholes. Doesn’t matter if a kid is fat or not, if you want to bully that kid, call the kid fat and your job is done – and you’ve probably started them on the road to an obsession with weight that they otherwise might not have had. The really sad thing is that he looks at me and doesn’t see me as being fat (and I’m a DEATHFATZ woman who has been that way for over 30 years and I don’t let it interfere with my life).

  6. Dr. Deah

    What’s great is that he sees you as his grandma, not his fat grandma and isn’t judging you. Unfortunately he is surrounded, as most of us are, by people who see and judge others based on their size. Fat is an adjective that has been loaded with so many negative connotations.

  7. sheila

    I will be curious to see if underweight male models will suffer the same as these underweight female models or will it go the way of grey hair. Grey hair on men–wisdom and sexy and debonair– grey hair on women-old, haggard, beyond the prime, asexual- or worse -non-sexual, ignored, unimportant,not worth targeting for new company products, dismissed, overlooked, unimportant and simply nonexistent. We just might as well smoke those Virginia Slims because why not?

  8. Ed D.

    Dr. Deah,
    I’ve commented a few times on your blog posts about the male perspective, and I am a bit perplexed that you are just now seeing the impact negative body image has on males. Growing up I was always a fat kid; easily 15% to 20% over weight according to the “guidelines”. I had to shop in the “Husky” department, which automatically branded me as different from the other guys. At school…well, the torment then (I’m 55) was no less than it probably is now. I ate more to soothe the pain I felt everyday. And to this day I still struggle with an image of myself that will change little no matter how thin I can get.
    Discrimination (and that truly is what we are dealing with) against fat people is institutionalized in our society in everything…from picking line-ups in gym class to advertising clothes. If media can portray all cultures and religions as acceptable and worthy of our respect, why can’t it show fat people as acceptable and worthy of our respect?
    Also, a note about your comment to Christian – you are so correct in pointing out something I have noticed for years: how the “health care” industry creates problems for their products to address…keep telling people they are defective, and they will seek out the solution…even if they have no problem to begin with! And isn’t it ironic that the solutions they proffer only keep you tethered to your “problem” (ie.: DIETS!)?

  9. Dr. Deah

    Dear Ed, Thanks for entering into a “diablog” with me and for continuing to be a male voice in this arena. I can only say, that although I was aware of fat bullying towards males, I really hadn’t seen it infiltrate the social media to this extent until recently. There is no discrimination, however, when it comes to the effects of pain and shaming. That, unfortunately, is equal for both genders. It is amazing to me that the recent anti-bullying legislature debated on in CA did not include height/weight discrimination in its language along with the other targets.

  10. Dr. Deah

    Thanks for sharing your comment. And you are correct that aging is a place where at least for now men still get more of a “free pass.” I wonder if that will last?

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