The following text describes eating disorders and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.
A whirlwind freshman year of BYOs (calories) and socials (calories) and Friday nights (liquid calories) had set George Cary’s (W ’19) sights on weight loss. Nothing extreme—no juice cleanses, no Crossfit, just the distinct silhouette of getting fit. The summer, breezy and internship–less, would prove to be the perfect, three–month window for goal–setting and goal–reaching. He downloaded MyFitnessPal, tracked his meals, counted his steps.
Come fall, George was thirty to forty pounds lighter and plastered in praise.
He maintained his new weight through a reliable pendulum of weekend revelry and weekday restraint, hovering at a happy 155 pounds. Then came sophomore spring. It was a semester shaped by stress: intense classes, a friend break–up, and the pounding pressure to lose more weight and lose it fast.
Sophomore summer was neither breezy nor internship–less. It was easy for George to isolate himself in his work; the months were hot and miserable and devoid of friends. He’d eat a protein bar or a salad for lunch, and the weight stumbled off. Then RA training slid around in mid–August, and with it came the social obligation of breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Three meals is normal for many, but “my metabolism was completely shot,” George recalls. The pounds packed on. What had once been a point of pride—of healthy, measured weight loss—soon shriveled into a source of shame—binging, fasting, purging, binging again.
“It’s affected a lot of things. Eating is very social, in that you go to BYOs, dinners, lunches, brunches, whatever,” he says. “I say no to a lot of things, but it’s been a cycle, because unfortunately that has led me, when I don’t go, to be depressed. And being depressed leads to another binge. And now I don’t want to go to events even more.”
On a Sunday night in late February, George spilled ten months of disordered eating into a 501–word private post on Facebook.
“Tomorrow starts National Eating Disorder Awareness week,” he begins, and soon dives into his own documentation of binge–fast cycles, of stress eating and restrictions, where “skinny felt fucking good” but soon spiraled into a seesaw of underweight, overweight, and rarely healthy.
“I was surprised by how many people reached out to me to say that they struggle with similar issues. That’s why I’m open about it,” George says, then pauses. “I’m not gonna lie—all the people that did reach out to me were female, and it sucks.”
Among the 300+ likes on George’s Facebook post, there were likely men who shared similar narratives, but for one reason or another, stayed silent.
In 2011, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) that 20 million women and ten million men in the United States live with an eating disorder. These ten million men often face a “double stigma” for seeking psychological help for a disorder characterized as “feminine or gay.” Although these approximations aren’t perfect—several assessors for eating disorders are geared towards females—they differ from past estimates. Ten years ago, eight million Americans were estimated to have eating disorders, with only 10 percent of them being male.
Surprisingly, this statistical skyrocket actually indicates progress. The jump in male diagnoses can partially be attributed to better resources and awareness. It’s a tentative baby step in the right direction.
Still, there are leagues to go. Even media milestones—like TV storylines in which eating disorders aren’t used strictly as punch lines—suffer from their fair share of narrative problems (case in point: how Gossip Girl handled Blair’s bulimia). Netflix’s 2017 release of To the Bone, a film about an anorexic teenager on her fifth round of in–patient treatment, which vowed to met mixed reactions. Portrayals of eating disorders seem to fluctuate between offensive and sensationalized. And at a very base level, there exists an issue of representation: a disproportionate majority of these characters are young, affluent, white women with anorexia. Minimal airtime is allotted to the narratives of people of color or LGBTQ+ people, who often struggle with disordered eating .
It's not uncommon for men at Penn to cut and bulk, endure mandatory workouts during pledging, crash diet for sports, or engage in weight–loss tactics conventionally viewed as “feminine.” But somewhere between the pamphlets in Student Health Service and the crooked cobblestones of campus, the dialogue on eating disorders still fails to include them.
“It is definitely a stigma males may face, because this is classically known as a female issue or a female concern,” explains Deborah Westerling, a registered dietician at SHS and member of the Eating Concerns team. “But the reality is, males get eating disorders, too. Eating disorders don’t discriminate for gender, for race, for ethnicity, for socioeconomic status.”
Eating disorders didn’t discriminate for Dan* (C '20). When his childhood chubbiness snowballed into borderline obesity in high school, Dan dove into a strict regimen of cardio and calorie counts, some days only eating 1300 calories.
“There was a point where even I knew that I was pretty healthy, but I didn’t like how I looked,” Dan recalls. “I wanted to keep going. And I don’t think that would’ve happened if there wasn’t some kind of societal pressure.”
Instead of food, Dan would drink milk. Other days, he’d eat 1300 calories worth of fruit, far from the 2800+ calories the for a male of his age and activity level. It didn’t take long for his mom to notice his curtailed appetite, or for his brothers to make jabs about his new and gaunter frame.
“It seems almost dismissive when they joke about it or make comments. It’s very encompassing. It takes over your life, in a way. And so, to have it be just a snide comment—it’s very frustrating.”
Dan hasn’t sought professional support within Penn, and he isn’t open about his struggles, either. If he were to tell his fraternity, he doesn’t know how supportive or dismissive they might be.
“I’ve never seen anyone be open about it,” he explains, “so I don’t know how others around me and myself would react if someone else were to. People keep it so personal. It’s not one of those things that have become culturally supported.”
Most health trends—kale smoothies, spin class, FitTea—target women. Given that women are the of the $240 billion U.S. health and wellness market, this is smart marketing. But beneath the economics lay differing expectations of gender, differing preconceptions of how acceptable it is for a man versus a woman to be conscious of their body.
“You see a lot of girls going to Sweetgreen or HipCityVeg. There’s not a lot of stigma against it,” Dan remarks. “I just remember really vividly, early on in my freshman year, I got chicken breast instead of fried chicken, and one of my friends who is a girl was like, ‘Really? You’re not getting the fried chicken?’”
Through mental and environmental shifts, Dan has improved his relationship with food. But it isn’t perfect and might never be: “There are the psychological after–effects that I feel to this day.”
So when the urge to diet–restrict resurfaces, Dan finds it surprisingly easy to mask the reality of restriction. If friends ever question why he so often refuses lunch invites or drinks, he writes it off as being too busy.
“Even if I’m not being that unhealthy in my diet, it’ll be like ‘Oh, I just want to be healthy this week.’ I wouldn’t go out. I wouldn’t be drinking with friends or anything.”
It’s an excuse, reflective of the hyperactivity of Penn culture, that almost always works.
Zach Fox (C ‘17) went to weight loss camp for the first time when he was 12. Like George and Dan, Zach grew up chubby; he wore t–shirts to the pool and cracked jokes about his weight so other kids wouldn’t. Around that time, his parents wrangled through a messy divorce.
“You can’t fix their horrible marriage, but you can go not eat for a couple of days. You can lose weight,” Zach says. “You can control your happiness through something that seems easy—it’s easy not to eat at a certain point.”
When he started seventh grade 15 pounds lighter, he felt accomplished. But the pounds kept falling off, and his weight loss spiraled by the winter.
Measured weight loss turned into hiding food under tables and lying about eating. He was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa later that year, before he turned 13.
For Zach, his anorexia served as a method of control and an outlet for what he deemed “perfectionism.” But there is no set origin for developing an eating disorder. Risk factors result from genetics; others are the product of one’s environment.
As the weight dropped, compliments morphed into worried observations. Zach started seeing a nutritionist once a week. He’d chug water before weigh–ins to inflate the numbers on the scale. In eighth grade, standing at 4’9” and with four desperate gallons of water pooled in his stomach, Zach failed to meet 50 pounds at his weigh–in. He was hospitalized at CHOP, tube–fed, then bounced from a residential treatment center in Wisconsin to an outpatient program in Chicago, whose methodology of heavy monitoring Zach credits for “rewiring” his brain.
Still, his mom ate lunch with him in the parking lot every day at the start of ninth grade, which he now finds a “bit embarrassing.” Zach also credits comedy for saving him. He diverted his “perfectionism” into stand–up, “took that energy and poured it into something that could actually help my life.”
There are moments his “perfectionism” overwhelms him, but unlike anorexia, comedy “won’t kill you.” It’s manageable.
According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, diagnosed with anorexia nervosa are “cured.” Zach falls within this minority. He channels his perfectionism, once an obstacle to his recovery, into his comedy.
NEDA lists “perfectionism” as a dominant psychological risk factor for an eating disorder, and Westerling pinpoints this characteristic in much of the Penn body.
“Putting a ton of high–achieving people who are constantly worried about the way that they’re perceived by others in the same spot is going to generate some sort of hypersensitivity to your own personal weaknesses,” Ryan Leone (CW ‘19), a member of the varsity sprint football team, notes. “And that can manifest itself on a physical side as well.”
According to NEDA, 33% of male athletes in weight–class sports (wrestling, rowing) and aesthetic sports (gymnastics, figure skating) are affected by eating disorders. Within this subculture of weigh–ins and the , a screening device that measures body fat percentage, some Penn athletes temporarily upend their lifestyles to even qualify to play.
In Ryan’s experience, “diet, fitness, exercise—it’s on the minds of people most times, but it’s particularly on the minds of people in sports that require weight limits.”
Some players resort to measures reminiscent of disordered eating: diet restriction, over–exercise, not eating at all. They may not drink anything the day of a weigh–in and will frequent the sauna in hopes of losing water weight.
Marcus Jones (C '18), also a member of the sprint football team, must cut 20 to 25 pounds in the span of six weeks in order to meet the newly–increased 178–pounds weight limit. He subsists on small portions of salad, lean meat, milk, and water, with no bread or sugar. When the weigh–in date nears, Marcus stops eating altogether. These restrictions add to his stress, and come midterm season, he’s often too tired to stay awake and study.
Marcus shrugs off comments from those who have a hard time associating his masculinity with the traditionally feminine notion of diet restriction. His mom worries about his health, but Marcus doesn’t see it as disordered eating—only a means to an end, something he’s willing to undergo because he loves the sport. Ryan, too, doesn’t think any of his teammates have eating disorders. “That I know of,” he appends.
Penn does have resources for students with eating disorders, men included. But finding a more permanent solution might be more difficult. The Eating Concerns team at SHS follows a procedure of assessment, pattern identification, goal–setting, and individualized support. CAPS hosts a weekly support group. RAs and GAs are equipped to screen for eating disorders.
David Zhao (C '19), an RA in Fisher–Hassenfeld, commends CAPS for using a male resident as the example in the training. Student groups like (Health, Education, Advocacy, and Law) offer mentorship and awareness initiatives.
But men who seek out or are referred to off–campus professional treatment face a very real manifestation of the gender stigma: many eating disorder centers, like the in Philadelphia, only treat females.
George meets with a nutritionist at SHS, a medical doctor, and has utilized CAPS. He’s found Penn’s resources helpful. But he says, “This is an issue you have to deal with on a daily basis. I meet with them once every two weeks, but at the end of the day, it’s my decision as to what happens at 9 p.m. every night. They’re not there to hold my hand.”
A support system of friends, on the other hand, can check in with him more frequently than professionals or parents. Actively pursuing self–care and positivity has helped. “It’s not like you can take a pill and get rid of it,” George says. “This isn’t something you can just turn off.”
Dan has also experienced the tenacity of his eating disorder. “Not to dismiss alcoholism, but you can avoid alcohol, cut it off. You still have to deal with eating food. It’s a daily thing.”
“It’s very important to be surrounded by other people who are encouraging,” Dan said. “They don’t have to know about it, but it’s a worthwhile thing to just be around people that can make you happy and more confident.”
Being around supportive people helps even if you don't talk about the eating disorder, "which you should," Dan says. It's one way to bring the idea of men with eating disorders out of the doctor's office and into the dialogue.
*Indicates name has been changed
Angela Lin is a freshman from Eden Prairie, Minnesota studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. She is a Features staff writer.
The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP: A 24–hour–a–day phone number for members of the Penn community who seek help in navigating Penn's resources for health and wellness.
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7): The counseling center for the University of Pennsylvania.
Student Health Service: 215-746-3535: Student Health Service can provide medical evaluations and treatment to patients with diagnosed eating disorders or who think that they might have one. Both male and female providers can perform a 30–minute examination that includes reviewing medical history, doing a physical exam, and possibly arranging for lab work or other studies needed.
Reach–A–Peer Hotline: 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.): A peer hotline to provide peer support, information, and referrals to Penn students.