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Perfect Bodies? Gay Men, Athletics and Anorexia

By E. Dixon

The media doesn't just love Derek Jeter because he pulled down MVP honors in the 2000 World Series; it also loves to talk about how great his butt looks in that pin-striped Yankee uniform. And men don't just take up cycling for the euphoria of the downhill; they also do it to get a body like Lance. While playing sports and exercising makes us feel good, there's no denying that trying to look good plays an important role in our culture's obsession with sports and fitness. But the desire to look ripped, cut, and "hot" can lead many women and men—and especially gay men—to contract the dangerous disease of anorexia nervosa.

You thought anorexia was only a women's disease? Think again. Men account for 10 to 15 percent of all cases of anorexia or bulimia, according to a 1997 report in the American Journal of Psychiatry. And gay men make up a shocking number of those cases: A 2002 International Journal of Eating Disorders report found that 20 percent of gay men are anorexic, and 14 percent suffer from the related eating disorder bulimia.

Whoa! While the reasons for these astronomical numbers are not fully known, researchers speculate two primary causes: gay culture's obsession with the body beautiful, success, and perfectionism; and perhaps less obvious, the low self-esteem associated with the negative culture of the closet.

Carolyn Costin, executive director of the Monte Nido Treatment Center for Eating Disorders (which Town & Country magazine named as one of the best anorexia treatment clinics in the country) says that the condition tends to be more prevalent in conflicted or closeted gay men than in those who are out. Focusing on their anorexia can distract closeted gay men from the fact that they can't be openly gay, and can be a way to help repress their sexual needs. Being in the closet inevitably leads to low self-esteem, and low self-esteem is one of the primary causes of anorexia.

Gay Athletes at Particular Risk
Costin says that gay athletes in particular are at an increased risk of developing the condition. "People with anorexia are very rejection-sensitive, and look at the rejection that can come in this society from being gay." she says. "Not winning the gold medal, not coming in first, can be a kind of rejection, too."

According to Costin, the competitive nature and perfectionism of many elite athletes—which are assets in the hockey rink or at the track—also make them more prone to developing anorexia. And in team sports such as baseball or soccer, the athlete may lose a sense of himself as an individual, putting the team's goals to win above his own health and wellbeing. "There is something about following orders that both a good athlete and an anorexic have [in common]," she says.

While being extremely thin may temporarily put a sprinter at a competitive advantage, a fighter into a desired weight zone, or make a figure skater look great in his costume, it's obviously a case of a very short-term gain for a big long-term loss—the body needs a certain amount of fat for organs to function properly. The extreme thinness of anorexia can damage the heart, liver, and kidneys, and cause brittle bones.

Most ironically for an athlete who is making himself thin for the good of his athletic performance, a lack of proper nutrition may actually cause that performance to deteriorate. It could also put him at greater risk of injury—which could sideline him for the season.

Stopping Anorexia Before It Starts
How can you protect yourself from developing anorexia? Since this is a psychological addiction, there are no easy answers. But Costin recommends that if you tend to be a perfectionist, you should try to stay away from situations where your appearance is a factor in how you're judged, such as sports like figure skating and gymnastics. You may also want to avoid the more body-obsessed gay events like circuit parties.

She also recommends avoiding extremes in both your eating and your workouts—don't overly restrict your diet, but also don't overdo your exercise routine.

"When I see that a client has an exercise addiction, I expect there will probably also be an eating disorder," says Costin, "because food deprivation and compulsive exercise are physiologically linked. We don't exactly know how, but we know that they are. If you deprive a rat of food and then put an exercise wheel into its cage, it will exercise compulsively to the point of exhaustion or even death."

Anorexia Warning Signs
As with other serious conditions such as alcoholism or drug addiction, the longer anorexia goes untreated, the more difficult it is to overcome. If you're concerned that you might have anorexia, check out the warning signs:

  • You have lost 15 to 20 percent of your body weight.
  • Friends say you're too skinny, but when you look in the mirror, you can't see it.
  • You're preoccupied with thoughts about food and calories.
  • When you're hungry but don't eat, you feel a sense of victory.
  • You weigh yourself a lot.
  • You feel bloated or nauseated after eating only a small or normal amount of food.
  • You feel cold when the air temperature is normal.
Anorexia is a serious disease that causes unnecessary suffering and, in extreme cases, even death. But the good news is that great treatment options are available; start by talking to your doctor. Recovery will greatly benefit your health, make you look and feel much better—and, perhaps best of all, will allow you to get back to being the very best athlete you can be.

Anorexia Resources
Want to learn more about anorexia? Check out these web sites for more information: