Is this a tipping point?

For those of you who are not familiar, Gladwell (2000) wrote of the tipping point that exists where something that was overlooked, not succeeding or had previously been thought unlikely or even defunct (but please note, I’m super-summarising the very detailed exploration Gladwell provided) suddenly took off or became significant.

I’ve left it until the dust has settled a little, following Andrew Flintoff’s interview with the press, regarding what his own difficulties were with food and eating. I think I needed time to determine how I felt about his public disclosure before posting something. I want to make it really clear immediately that what I have to say here is far less to do with his individual experience and far more to do with what the reporting of his issue has to tell us about societal understanding about eating disorders in men.

I have been asking myself whether a respected, well-known, good-looking, masculine, high-achieving male ‘coming out’ as having experienced issues with food and weight might tip the balance for more young males to finally be open about some of the problems they are experiencing. However, I’m also concerned that the way the story has been presented could achieve the opposite. Would some of the captions that appear under the photographs displayed in newspapers/on news websites simply put other young men off?

One has a picture from a specific, unflattering angle stating that it is Mr. Flintoff with a ‘fuller figure’ (let’s not even get into, at this point, the fact that this is a disparagingly bland term often used about females, rather than males) and yet, as an active sportsman, apart from the upward angle that makes his face look a certain way, I can barely see excess lipids on him. This is set immediately alongside a sinewy yet gaunt ‘I’ve-been-in-heavy-training-as-a-boxer’ picture. Some men will take one look at that and think ‘Well, if that’s a fuller figure then I must be utterly disgusting and loathsomely fat’.

He says that these behaviours began as a result of some of the “jibes” he received. This I can believe, as almost all of the guys who’ve taken part in my research report that they suffered cruelty and bullying because of their appearance (I suspect they would agree, however, that this went far beyond being exposed to ‘a few’ “fat lad jibes”) but what about the men whose disordered relationship with food, weight and body image have far less to do with overweight and far more to do with a desperate attempt at controlling the effects of stress, trauma and depression – as well as self-perception and esteem.

When, in short, will our reporting of men’s experience of eating disorder become something more than glib and clichéd?

Nevertheless, I’m glad that this news was reported. I’m pleased that more men are less fearful about admitting what they have been through, actively rejecting the idea that an eating disorder means they are less of a man. Yet, why are we not discussing the latter – the male obsession with this projected idea that being anything less than a man is bad, along with its sub-text discussion about the misogyny that is still rife within our culture where we raise our men to believe that being ‘less of a man’ (whatever that means) must be not being a man, which in turn implies being the opposite of a man: a woman, which is to be ‘feminine’ or feminised…and therefore bad.  What a pickle.

So, it’s just over a year until I’m scheduled to complete this six year part-time PhD – will those final few months see a continued increase of male public figures coming forward to talk about their experiences and inspire other men to do the same? Or will we sink deeper into the misconceptions that already abound about the nature of disordered eating, both generally and particularly pertaining to men? Some of whom I know can testify to the chronic distress, trauma and debilitating reality of living with an eating disorder, something that far exceeds statements like ‘I’ve thrown up around the world’.