PhD Candidate in Sociology
University of California, San Diego
“Feminism is the cancer of civilization.”
Although online misogyny has been well noted and characterized as par for the course (Gray 2012; Mantilla 2013), it seems surprising to find the above antifeminist statement on what is arguably the most popular online discussion forum for anorexic men due to the fact that anorexic men are in possession of a stigmatized identity (Rich 2006), a trait that theoretically would make them capable of greater empathy than their non-stigmatized counterparts (Zerubavel and Wright 2012). Indeed, it might even be assumed that anorexic men would have greater empathy for feminists especially considering the fact that the oppression the latter are attempting to challenge is based on a gender ideology that has the potential to adversely affect anorexic men (Andersen 1990; Brumberg 2000). Yet this study which subjected an online forum for anorexic men to a discourse analysis discovered that antifeminist sentiment as well as discourses on essentialized difference were quite prevalent: an especially peculiar finding when one reflects on the fact that the central purpose of the forum is to foster a supportive environment for men with an eating disorder.
Unsurprisingly, themes also emerged surrounding the body and I argue that the prevalence of discourses on essentialized difference and antifeminist sentiment can be connected to the body projects anorexic men are engaged in.
The first theme to emerge was a resounding and widespread desire for the anorexic body coupled with performing this body online: a feat accomplished via discussions concerning everything from exercise regimes and fasting to the repercussions of anorexia. These findings converge with those of recent studies of online pro-ana communities where women exalt an emaciated physique (Fox, Ward and O’Rourke 2005) as well as attempt to make the anorexic body evident online (Boero and Pascoe 2012). In fact, the complete absence of scholarship on men’s engagement in pro-ana communities led me to pursue this study in the first place (Boero and Pascoe 2012; Giles 2006; Haas et al. 2010): a lacuna certainly emanating from the historical association between anorexia and femininity (Brumberg 2000).
Although the bodily component of hegemonic masculinity is constantly in flux with its most recent reconceptualization being one of lean muscularity, and although open scrutinizing of the male body is more prevalent now than ever before with the unsurprising result of increased body dissatisfaction and dieting among men (Ricciardelli, Clow and White 2010) – noted conduits to eating disorders (Brumberg 2000) -, I remain unconvinced that the anorexic men on this forum are the victims of excessive conformity to bodily ideals as anorexic women are often portrayed (Fox, Ward and O’Rourke 2005). My interpretation comes from the fact that the men on the forum constantly express desire for a “fragile,” “tiny,” “airy” body: a finding that diverges from Bennett and Gough’s (2012) study of an online forum for dieting men where users constantly framed their dieting as a quest for muscularity. Instead, it appears that the anorexic men of my study were pushing back against hegemonic masculinity as opposed to relentlessly pursuing it.
Lending credence to this theory is the fact that many straight-identified users on the forum comment that while they realize their emaciated frames turn off women, they still want fragile bodies: that this body project is being undertaken for them and not in the pursuit of women. This particular finding is important as it not only highlights the counterhegemonic nature of this body project, but further challenges scholars who have suggested that anorexic men tend to be gay on account of their subculture’s exaltation of thinness: a notion that exists within popular culture as well (Herzog, Bradburn and Newman 1990; McVittie, Cavers and Hepworth 2005).
Oftentimes the assertion that this body project is being undertaken solely for personal enjoyment revolves about the notion of independent thinking: a discourse that is itself an enactment of hegemonic masculinity (Gill, Henwood and McLean 2005). Yet this notion of independent thinking could in fact be indicative of a pro-ana presence on the forum. As the pro-ana movement combats the notion that anorexia is a mental illness, reframing it as a personal choice and superior lifestyle predicated on control, empowerment and beauty (Fox, Ward, and O’Rourke 2005), it is possible that many users on the forum are engaged in a counterhegemonic project targeting more than just the bodily ideal of masculinity. However, not all of the men on the forum are pro-ana, a finding that is in alignment with recent literature on such sites (Wooldridge, Mok and Chiu 2013), as many have lamented their inability to recover for reasons that will be addressed below.
Yet while many users on the forum may be combatting the notion that anorexia is a mental disorder, what is apparent is the fact that many users – straight and gay - are definitely combatting the bodily ideal of hegemonic masculinity. Perhaps this is akin to the feminist approach of viewing anorexia as a form of protest rather than as an instance of over-conformity (Ward 2007). Yet while the feminist perspective of anorexia hinges upon contesting unequal gender relations at the site of the body, the men on the forum I studied do not appear to be fasting away the body associated with gender domination. In fact, many of the members discourse on essentialized difference as reality (as opposed to dominant ideology) and, as mentioned at the start of this blog entry, a very prevalent topic of conversation on the forum is anti-feminism: a trend that cannot be attributed to trolls as I specifically only coded posts written by members of the forum (as opposed to guests)
Indeed, many men on the forum bemoan the fact that they are feminized on account of their emaciated bodies: oftentimes through the fag discourse (Pascoe 2012). However, such censuring is never on account of being anorexic, but rather for not meeting the bodily standard of hegemonic masculinity. In fact, many members on the forum lament that their anorexic bodies - as indicative of anorexia - are invisible to family members, peers, school personnel and even medical professionals. As a result, many men on the forum divulge that they cannot get the help that they need: a finding that lends credence to Eliot and Baker’s (2001) supposition that the historical connection between anorexia and femininity continues to be a major obstacle to the proper diagnosis and treatment of anorexic men.
Many men on the forum are aware of this connection and are resentful of the double standard it creates with respect to the way their anorexia is treated (i.e. ridiculed or rendered invisible) versus the way the disordered eating habits of their female peers or family members are handled with gravity. In fact, I believe that forum members’ experiences with prejudice in the real world combined with the perceived discrimination they face online – as women frequently post on the forum looking for ana boyfriends or male ana buddies – is one reason why antifeminist sentiment is so prevalent on the site as men’s movements have provided men with the script that the gendered prejudice and discrimination men face today are the results of feminism (Jordan 2016). Another potential reason for the antifeminism on the forum may be the fact that subordinate men, although they may contest the internal dimension of hegemonic masculinity that negatively affects them, tend to uphold the external dimension as it continues to exalt them in the face of debasement (Oliffe 2006; Yeung, Stombler and Wharton 2006). From this lens, the desire for thinness circulating throughout the forum indicates an attempt to undermine the internal dimension of hegemonic masculinity alone by rejecting the physical component of the ideal as opposed to an attempt to undermine the entirety of the gender order. This hypothesized strategy is perhaps made more evident by the partial penetration of gender ideology undertaken by forum members - a penetration that highlights the ways in which men suffer at the hands of gendered beliefs while leaving essentialized difference intact – as well as the targeting of feminists who would dismantle the entirety of the gender order that benefits even subordinate men.
Surprisingly, many of the forum members engaging in such partial penetrations are transmen. Additionally, like their cisgender counterparts, they too desire thinness; only their desire revolves about starving away the curves of femininity. Like the body projects of their cisgendered counterparts, the body projects undertaken by the transmen on this forum do not dovetail with the feminist notion of anorexia as protest as transmen on the forum additionally uphold notions of essentialized difference and engage in antifeminist discourse.
Another surprising finding is the fact that transmen are resoundingly accepted on the forum: not merely tolerated, but actually accepted as men. This is an interesting finding given how widespread transphobia tends to be in general (Girshick 2008), how men tend to be more transphobic than women (Nagoshi, et al. 2008) and how prevalent discourses on essentialized difference are on the forum: a discourse that conflates sex and gender. Perhaps such trans-acceptance from cisgendered members stems from the fact that their experiences with subordinate masculinity have made them more empathetic towards other subordinate masculinities. Or perhaps it stems from the fact that this community of anorexic men exists online. While the offline bodies of transmen might make cisgendered anorexic men feel uncomfortable, online, trans-identified users are not only perhaps able to more successfully perform gender identity through discourses on essentialized difference and anti-feminist sentiment - as their material bodies that might produce cognitive dissonance in cisgendered members are hidden-, they are also able to perform a masculine bodily identity through discourses that make their anorexic body (which, in this context, is their masculine body) evident online (Boero and Pascoe 2012). In light of this hypothesis, the simultaneous presence of trans-acceptance and talk of essentialized difference may now make sense. As many transmen, like their cisgendered counterparts, discourse on essentialized difference, they contribute to the presence of this conversation on the forum: a contribution that not only intensifies this discursive trend, but also perhaps paves the way for their acceptance as real men within this online context. While such gender presentation may only be strategic, there is also the possibility that it is heartfelt especially when one considers the fact that certain feminists have and continue to be transphobic.
Certainly, this initial study opens the door for further investigations. One thing that I must do personally in the future is tease out any distinct subgroups on the forum, as it is most likely that a few exist and would perhaps account for the seeming incongruity of some of my findings.
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