Hollyoaks are once again building on their reputation as a soap that deals with difficult topics. The latest issue to come into focus is male Body Dysmorphia, with Jason Roscoe (played by Alfie Browne-Sykes) struggles with his Body Image and food issues. Despite the fact that everyone around him sees him as an attractive young man, he believes that he is a weak, skinny, loser. In addition to strenuous exercise, the character turns to steroid use and skipping meals. Jason’s actions have resulted in the diabetic character’s collapse following a charity boxing match and the sectioning of his girlfriend’s mother, who is suspected of throwing away her own meals. The discovery this week of a stash of uneaten meals in his room by his on-off girlfriend Holly leads to the discovery of Jason’s secret by his brothers. One line in the episode struck a particular chord. When Holly reveals her suspicions to Jason’s brothers, his twin Robbie responds with, ‘An eating disorder? What, like a girl?’
Ironically, an episode of The Big Bang Theory airing the same day featured this gem of a line: ‘I’m a lady, and with that comes an oestrogen-fuelled need to flick through glossy magazines that make me hate my body.’ These two lines point to an important cultural misconception that eating disorders are an issue that affects only women. Yes, women are daily bombarded by images that create an impossible standard of beauty, but the same applies to men. The truth, of course, is difficult to pin down as statistics can only accurately measure the number of people who are treated for eating disorders. The number of people who have issues with food or their bodies, but never seek treatment, is much higher. But a survey by the British NHS in 2007 of people over the age of 16 found that 6.4% of adults had a problem with food, and that a quarter of these were men. So yes, based on this result, it would seem that women are much more likely to suffer from an eating disorder than men. But, then again, we have to remember the pressure on men to be ‘real’ men. Real men don’t worry about the food they eat, or what their bodies look like, right? Right?
As a child, I had a number of… issues with food. Basically, the more plain the food was, the better. Unlike most children, I didn’t have a problem with vegetables. Carrots, broccoli, peas, sweetcorn, all fine. It was when things came in complex sauces that I started to struggle. It was almost impossible to take me to a restaurant other than an Italian one, and I remember spending many trips to Indian restaurants chewing my way through plain naan bread. The trouble was that everyone just thought I was fussy, when the truth was that the thought of eating a curry made me feel physically ill, and the prospect of going out, whether to a restaurant or a friend’s house, made me extremely anxious. My sympathy today really lies with my long-suffering mother who, in addition to dealing with my vegetarian sister, would have to provide me with an alternative to almost any meal that the rest of the family was eating. In most cases, this would entail plain pasta and bacon, or some form of meat in bread crumbs with chips.
Boarding school only added to the problem. I couldn’t face the idea of eating most of the food served by the cafeteria. Luckily, there was often a pasta and salad bar available, and that was what I ate. Some weeks I ate nothing but plain pasta, some cheese, and cucumber. I couldn’t bring myself to eat much of the ‘normal’ food, but the fact that I couldn’t break out of my routine made me deeply anxious. If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, I also suffered from a distinct lack of inter-personal skills which, coupled with a strong case of social anxiety, made the prospect of meal times absolute Hell. In retrospect, I’m sure no one really cared where I sat or what I ate, but at the time I was convinced that everyone was watching and laughing at me. It was similar to the well-known stalwart of American teen movies, in which the misfit searches desperately for somewhere to eat their lunch, finally settling for the privacy of the toilet. I never reached that point, I’ll admit, especially as the school had strict rules against removing food from the dining hall. Mealtimes became an act of speed, in which I would get my food, find somewhere quiet to sit down with people who weren’t entirely hostile to my presence, and eat my food as quickly as possible.
The irony is that my school was always vigilant about eating disorders. When I was fifteen, a girl a few years older than me fainted in the middle of morning chapel (yes, this was the kind of school where we had to attend chapel at least once a week). It turned out that the student in question hadn’t had breakfast at all that week. As a result the school kept dibs on which students were skipping meals. At least, they kept track of every female student who was skipping meals. In fact, the parents of another friend of mine was contacted after she was absent for breakfast. Turns out that she had a collection breakfast cereals and pop tarts in her room. Once again, the problem of skipped meals and eating disorders were seen as a female problem. If they had extended the same vigilance to all of their students, I can only assume that someone, somewhere, would have noticed something up not only with me, but with a lot of the male students, many of whom were substituting proper meals with protein shakes and gels.
A guy who spends time worrying about his appearance is instantly classified as vain. Caught checking my reflection in car and shop windows, the immediate assumption was that I was being vain. The truth, though, was always a little different. I wasn’t checking that I looked good. I was checking that I didn’t look as terrible as I thought I did. Could people see the spot on my forehead, which I’d brushed my hair down in an attempt to cover up? Did my arms really look as ridiculously skinny as they feel in this t-shirt? If I’d been on the chocolate over the past few days, I would be convinced that people could see the grease leaking out of my face. My chest was too narrow. My stomach was too round. I would slouch all the time, walking with my arms folded so that no one could see my body shape. I became convinced that I was oscillating between too fat and too thin, never hitting on anything close to normal or healthy. My issues with food and my body were compounded by a childhood history of asthma, teenage cases of alopecia, and a predilection for scifi and fantasy. At school, I would be self-consciously aware of the other boys in my class, who all seemed to have clearer skin, better bodies, more friends, more interesting lives, than I did. When I reached university, I failed to join a gym based solely on the fact that it was the domain of the rowing, rugby, and football clubs; men who could probably lift me over their heads with one hand if they wanted.
It wasn’t until I was at university that I was able to tackle my issues with food properly. The freedom of cooking for myself, and eating in private if I wanted to, allowed me to expand my diet and face up to the reality of my problems. It took the better part of three years. Today, I’ve managed to adopt a Try Anything Once attitude to my food. There are, however, some exceptions. My brothers’ shellfish allergies mean that I won’t try most seafood. Trial and error revealed a minor allergy to peanuts. And I still won’t touch mushrooms. They’re not plants. They’re not animals. They only really grow on dead things. And I can’t quite get over the idea that they may, in fact, be alien lifeforms.
Body issues are something that persist. Everyone has days where they don’t like what they see in the mirror. The recent episode of Hollyoaks culminated with Jason smashing his own reflection with a boxing trophy. I am not the same person I was at school. I was lucky enough to make some amazing friends during my three years at Cardiff. My nights out in the city proved that I was, at least in the eyes of some, reasonably attractive. People with eating disorders need help, but they also need the time and space to work through their own issues. Standing over someone and making them eat a meal won’t cure the problem. If anything, it will make things worse. Hollyoaks should be congratulated for, once again, slipping over the boundary of what we consider acceptable for discussion and highlighting a common problem in young people today (just as they did with previous plotlines dealing with transsexuality, eating disorders, homosexuality, schizophrenia, and many other issues). The real challenge, now, is how they deal with the resolution of the storyline. Issues with food and body image don’t just go away. It can take years of effort for sufferers to recover. The worst thing Hollyoaks could do would be to bury Jason’s character in a clinic for a few months before simply declaring him ‘cured.’
All images are courtesy of Channel4.com. Medical statistics are from mengetedstoo.co.uk, a website providing information and guidance on male eating disorders and related issues.