Zayn Malik’s ‘Eating Disorder’

It has been a goodly while since I updated my research journal because I’ve been finishing my PhD, which I submitted yesterday (excitingly).

This week the media has had a mini-frenzy with revelations about Zayn Malik’s admission that he had an eating disorder during some of his time as part of the boyband One Direction. As I specialise in male eating disorders his sharing of this news (as part of the publication of his biography) has understandably gotten me thinking.

I’m torn, I think. On one hand, we need more men with a public profile to be honest about their issues with food and eating. It helps people realise that they are not abnormal or alone and can do a great deal of good in focused awareness raising around the issue in males. In this way I’m pleased that a popular celebrity was able to be so candid, especially given the assumed stigma that surrounds male eating disorders.

On the other hand, however, a closer analysis means that I cannot ignore certain aspects of what has been reported. First of all, this man is trying to market a biography. Can I be a little circumspect about any motivation his people may have about him highlighting aspects of it with the press; the most newsworthy elements, perhaps?

Or, as seems more likely here, given the use of language, they may indeed be wanting him to backtrack on aspects of the biography that are now being picked up by journalists. He may have had little choice: a tiny mention of eating problems, one item among many interesting aspects of a young man’s life, and that’s the one the press run with whether he wants to talk further about it or not.

Let’s do what I do in my research then, and analyse a piece of text to see what it reveals…

Zayn Malik opens up about eating disorder struggles when in One Direction

What does this excerpt suggest to us?

  1. That the bigger context for any mention of problems with eating is about how much healthier and better he feels nowadays. What he appears to have struggled with was self-care and part of this included taking in enough calories to compensate for any gruelling schedules he was facing.
  2. NME chooses the language ‘downplays’ for their reporting of his response to his alleged ‘health struggles’ from the biography. This suggests, although somewhat languidly, that they are perhaps not fully believing of what comes next; nevertheless, what comes next does put things in perspective.
  3. Mr. Malik himself is quoted as saying he never really thought of his issues with his health and eating as having an eating disorder, especially being as he was never diagnosed with one. Now this could reveal one of two things. Firstly, this might signify something common among men – that we fail to recognise and name the issues we succumb to, there’s been considerable research that supports this may be the case. Secondly, there’s maybe no way that this man intended to end up a ‘poster boy’ for male eating disorders, as his issues with food never exacerbated to such an extent that he became ‘disordered’. This takes us into word meanings: there’s a good deal of difference between ‘being in poor health’ and ‘being ill’. One has a suggestion that health is still possible but is currently not optimum, the other clearly means that all is not well with an organism.


I’m glad that any man, however ordinary or celebrity, feels they can share a story of the health issues they’ve faced and how these have been overcome. More men need to talk about this stuff so that it weakens stereotypes of the ‘stoic’ male, who soldier on regardless of what they’re going through. However, having shared a tweet today about Zayn Malik’s story, I must temper this with some caution. Those men who are in the middle of the tumult that an eating disorder brings know how life-twisting and toxic it can be, and it tends to go way beyond ‘not eating enough’. Let’s not lose sight of the young man’s words. If he says he doesn’t believe he really had an eating disorder per se, then that’s enough for me, so let’s stop presenting him as something he’s not. That goes for me, too. I’ll read more closely next time. After all, that’s my job.