The novelist tackling the stigma of male eating disorders
By Catherine Lough
Samuel Pollen is the author of “The Year I Didn’t Eat,” recently named by The Guardian as one of the best books of 2019. The novel is a heart-breaking yet humorous exploration of a young boy living with an eating disorder, focusing on how boys and men with anorexia struggle to get help.
“You don’t have the same media pressure to lose weight that a lot of young women experience,” said Pollen, 31. “But then there are probably fewer resources out there set up for you.”
Eating disorders are on the rise, including among boys and young men. The eating disorder charity Beat estimates that 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, and the number of male sufferers has increased. In the past seven years, the number of boys receiving hospital treatment for an eating disorder almost doubled from 235 to 466. Pollen says that more needs to be done to raise awareness of how these issues affect boys.
In the novel, 14-year-old Max Howarth is grappling with the ups and downs of adolescence, worried about school tests, friendships and his first crush. At the same time, he is struggling to cope with the voice of Ana, his anorexia, who taunts him mercilessly about his appearance.
Pollen was 12 when he suffered from anorexia. He says he consciously portrayed Max as an average teenager to combat stereotypes about the illness. For example, many people think that only middle-class girls experience eating disorders.
In fact, media depictions of anorexia often focus on perfectionist young women, under intense pressure to succeed from overbearing parents. From Natalie Portman’s portrait of an anorexic ballerina in dark drama Black Swan in 2011 to Lily Collins’ more recent turn as Ellen in Netflix’s To The Bone, books and films about eating disorders have perpetuated the myth that only affluent, high-achieving girls get ill.
Of course, as Pollen points out, teenage girls do suffer from anorexia at higher rates than boys – Beat estimates that 0.3 per cent of young women aged 11-34 have anorexia, compared to 0.1 per cent of young men. Nonetheless, he argues that media portrayals of girls with anorexia, often striving for success in competitive fields such as ballet, distort the lonely reality of the disease.
“I wanted to give a sense of how isolating it actually is when you’re going through something like this,” Pollen said. “People think the main experience of an eating disorder is being hungry and worrying about your weight, whereas a huge amount of it revolves around social anxiety.”
“Boys are under media pressure, the picture is simply more complex”
Pollen suggests that people assume girls are more influenced by media pressure, bombarded by images of slender models. He says the picture for men is simply more complex, with magazines idealising both muscular builds and waif-like indie singers. In his own case, the skinny chic of bands like Oasis didn’t help.
Ryan, a 29-year-old who has also suffered from an eating disorder, agrees. For him, the rise of “skater-boy” culture and its veneration of slim rock stars exacerbates his illness. He also felt less able to ask for help, feeling pressured by masculine stereotypes to “soldier on”.
“I focused on what women found attractive – I got stuck onto an image that I wanted to be,” Ryan said. “When doctors think about male body dysmorphia, they assume you’re focused on getting big – it makes it harder for male anorexics, because you’re seen as suffering from a female illness.”
For Pollen, the support of his family and friends eventually helped him overcome his anorexia. He was keen to portray positive male friendships in the book. While Max feels isolated in the book, he is quietly supported by his friends, Stu and Ram.
“I think male relationships often really suck in books,” said Pollen. “A lot of books aimed at men present them as heroes who can do all kinds of exciting action things, but genuine friendships are relatively rare.”
Mental health: “awareness can be a fig leaf for action”
For young people who have a friend struggling with an eating disorder, Pollen recommends they try to seek medical advice for them through a GP, or by contacting Beat, but also said that continuing to talk to their friend and check in on them is important.
Nonetheless, he maintains that society needs to take more action to support mental health, both in terms of funding and awareness. Pollen describes himself as politically left-wing, and he suggests some mental health awareness campaigns can seem abstract, especially in the context of funding cuts. Young people with eating disorders can face long waits for medical care on the NHS, and just one per cent of NHS funding goes to support child and adolescent mental health services. Awareness, he thinks, can be a fig leaf for action.
Despite this, he argues that there does need to be more awareness of boys and men living with anorexia. Male eating disorders remain a hidden disease. Narratives like Pollen’s may help boys who are suffering to find a voice.