BY BOJANA GALIC Inhaling deeply, Cory Hirsch[1] bench presses 200 pounds, a bead of sweat dripping down his face.  He repeats the exercise ten times, each a little more strained than the last, and finally finishes the third set. Hirsch sits up on the bench and takes a swig of water, the muscles in his forearm flexing as he brings the bottle to his lips.

“In high school, I never drank water during a workout,” he says, chuckling at his past self. “Extra water weight made me bloated. At the time, it was ‘God forbid that should happen.’”

 

A politics major at New York University, Hirsch, 22, prides himself in being healthy and fit. At 6-foot-2-inches tall, with pearly teeth and a muscular frame, his claim is difficult to dispute. The former high school wrestler has stayed active in college, hitting the gym six days a week and cooking low carb, high protein meals in his apartment.

 

Hirsch adopted these healthy habits when he began at NYU, a big change from his high school experience which reflected a very different lifestyle. He scrolls through his phone, pulling up an old, unrecognizable picture. At age 16, weighing 150 pounds, Hirsch spent four hours at the gym and ate 1, 500 calories each day. As a wrestler, he followed a grueling weight loss regime, sweating off 10 pounds each week to meet the 135-lb wrestling weight class. As a result of constant weight loss, he developed anorexia nervosa.

 

The old image of Hirsch is unsettling. Taken during a vacation in Mexico, the photo shows him standing on a sandy beach in swim trunks. His jawline is pronounced, his cheekbones are hollow. While Hirsch’s arms are the same general size, they seem sicklier; his veins are raised and his bicep seems to cling to the bone, each tendon fighting to keep it in place. Several rib bones peek out from behind his tanned skin and protruding abdomen muscles.

 

“I even considered steroids,” he says. “To say this was a low point in my life would be an understatement. The worst part was that I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone. It’s hard to explain but guys just don’t talk about these things. I don’t know, it feels unnatural, I guess.”

 

Hirsch never spoke with friends or family about his condition, believing anorexia to be an “un-manly issue.” Body dysmorphia has been historically considered a feminine struggle, with more diagnosed female cases, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. However, from 1999 to 2011, the number of young men with eating disorders more than doubled, a JAMA Pediatrics study found. Nearly ten percent of subjects reported high concerns with muscularity, while 31 percent reported bulimic or binge eating behaviors. Yet, despite the escalation in male cases, women still dominate the conversation of body dysmorphia.

 

Hirsch’s reluctance to seek professional help is a gender-wide trend, according to Andrew Reiner, an English and Gender Studies professor at Towson University. Reiner teaches “Real Men Smile,” a course that examines how perceptions of masculinity are manifested. From a young age, men are taught to restrain most emotions other than anger, Reiner said in a recent phone interview. Seeking help for emotional struggles is out of the question.

 

“We don’t usually think of this as stereotypical behavior, it’s how guys are ‘supposed to be,’” Reiner explains. “‘Tough it out, suck it up, handle it on your own.’ These are some of the hallmarks of the male script that they’re supposed to follow. There are more men now dealing with body dysmorphia and eating disorders and they feel like it would be a total blemish to seek help.”

 

When men do reach out, it puts them in a non-masculine lens, which people find unnerving, Reiner says, adding that it’s why there has been little public attention towards male eating disorders.

 

“If you’re developing a disorder that you and your friends know is an issue that happens to girls, it’s a double-whammy,” Reiner says. “Guys typically don’t go out and seek help but they’re definitely not going to seek help now because there’s the stigma of having some ‘chick disease.’”

 

A “chick disease” seems to be the label in popular media. Catering solely to female victims of body dysmorphia, companies such as Aerie and Dove have launched body positivity campaigns in their advertising, encouraging women to take pride in their natural body. Yet, there lacks a male equivalent. For Ray Schmidt, 19, a business student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this absence played a role in the development of his own eating disorder.

 

“I feel like there’s this socially accepted understanding that ‘real women don’t look like airbrushed models,’” Schmidt says. “But there’s no one saying the same for men. So, I believed that real men were supposed to look like fitness models–muscular, vascular, thin. I was taught to want to look that way, no matter what it took to get there.”

 

To replicate the fitness model physique, Schmidt, like Hirsch, started using protein supplements. Consuming three times the recommended serving size, Schmidt drank about 80g of protein each day. The resulting side effects never reached toxic level but he often found himself keeled over with sharp stomach pains.

 

Protein powders have even been used to replace full meals, according to a 2015 American Psychology Association (APA) study. For three percent of APA respondents, supplement misuse went so far as to require hospitalization for kidney and liver damage. These supplements have become a “ubiquitous fixture in the pantries of young men across the country,” writes Dr. Richard Achiro in the study, noting they are widely available for sale even in college book stores.

 

Young men overuse supplements because they feel inadequate in their masculinity, Achiro writes. He echoes Reiner’s perception that male body dysmorphia ties back into society’s narrow perception of masculinity. Given the power of traditional masculinity, Reiner suggests that parents begin talking to young boys as they do with girls.

 

“If we can get young men to learn to feel safe with their emotions, they will reengage with parts of themselves they shut off a long time ago,” he says. “It’s this idea of letting men show their vulnerability.”

 

Hirsch’s three-year-long struggle with anorexia left him feeling just that: vulnerable. Only during his freshman year when he stopped weekly wrestling weigh-ins, did he gradually prioritize fitness and confidence, rather than appearance. While Hirsch managed to overcome his anorexia without professional help, he does not foresee the stigma disappearing any time soon.

 

“More and more, I see social media encouraging women to be strong and that’s amazing,” he says. “But it’s funny that you never see posts or images telling guys that it’s okay to feel weak. I don’t think I ever will.”

[1] Name has been changed at his request.