Wasting away

What’s driving young gay men to starve, binge, and purge?

BY David Luc Nguyen

September 10 2006 11:00 PM ET

“I
realized I had an eating disorder after I chipped my tooth
while binge-eating,” says Jamie Mattson, a
24-year-old gay Seattle man. “It was erosion of
the enamel from throwing up two or three times a week for
the past three years. I had to undergo hours of oral
surgery because the tooth abscessed and required a
root canal. I never realized being bulimic could be so
harmful.

“I tried
dieting, but it never seemed to work, because after skipping
a few meals I would feel so hungry that I would wolf
everything down in sight. I’d feel so bad
afterwards that I would drink a huge amount of water
and then induce vomiting,” says Mattson.

According to
Abigail Natenshon, a psychotherapist and one of the
nation’s leading eating disorder experts, an
estimated 80,000–320,000 gay men in the United
States suffer from eating disorders, with over 50% of them
under the age of 25. Various sources report the incidence of
eating disorders among gays to be between 10% and 42%.
These numbers should be interpreted cautiously, as
research on the subject is very limited. But further
research is at last taking place in this field. New studies
will look at contributing factors, behavioral
patterns, and the prevalence of eating disorders among
gay men.

“Many
people believe, probably correctly, that the grossly
idealized images so pervasive in [gay] culture are
partly responsible for the skewed, compromised
self-esteem that many gay men have,” says Matthew
Brooks, a Seattle therapist. But Brooks emphasizes that the
issue is far more complicated: “While there is
truth to this idea, it’s more likely the case
that eating disorders develop when there are many factors at
work over time, including family pressures, shame, and mixed
messages about food, appearance, and weight. This all
leads to bewilderment about one’s sexuality as
well as those impossible standards from mass
culture.”

At 5 foot 8 and
120 pounds, 21-year-old A.J. Kuchnicki Wheeler agrees
that media images influence the way he views his body. The
mixed messages he was bombarded with led to a
three-year battle with anorexia. One of the first
images to really leave an impression was Brad Pitt in Fight
Club. “I wanted to look like him so bad,”
Wheeler recalls. “I wanted a lot of body
characteristics simply not possible for most men to have,
both feminine and masculine.”

Brooks says
eating disorders involve not just binging or starving but,
as in Wheeler’s case, obsession:
“Besides anorexia and bulimia, eating disorders
or body image problems can take the form of intense
preoccupation with weight and appearance, purging or
obsessive dieting, and changes in social functioning.
More people are somewhere on this broad spectrum of
eating disorders than [the subset] who have been
diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia.”

Unfortunately,
many programs for people with eating disorders are geared
toward women and teenage girls. Gay men are less likely to
seek help because a preoccupation with physical
appearance is considered a social norm by many. There
are serious consequences if these issues are not
addressed.

“Getting
help and getting it quickly is important,” says
Brooks. “Eating disorders for gay men often are
accompanied by depression, isolation, or substance
abuse. The diseases do not go away on their own, and they
tend to get worse the longer they last.”

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