Tough Topics and Boys

I was recently working on a resource list of fiction & non-fiction pertaining to Mental Health issues for a school board, and as I divided the books into their respective categories, I noticed something disturbing. While there were certainly some books with male characters that dealt with drinking, drugs, and even suicide, I discovered that 99% of the books pertaining to eating disorders had female characters.

Upon doing some research, I discovered that eating disorders and boys seems to be an almost non-existent topic in Kids/YA fiction. While women are more commonly affected by eating disorders (and culturally we associate them with girls/women) millions of boys and men suffer from eating disorders as well. Anorexia, Bulimia, and binge eating all occur in men, but where are these stories in literature? My searches came up with only a handful that dealt with boys and weight issues, and fewer still which was about boys with eating disorders or body issues.

So why aren’t these stories being written? Is it because eating disorders are perceived to be a female issue? Because men and teenage boys don’t ever feel self-conscious about their weight?

Puberty, it seems provides tons of opportunity for humour at the middle-grade level. We laugh about the awkward stages that both boys and girls go through as their bodies start to change. We nod and smile knowingly for having experienced it ourselves and embrace these books for both boys and girls.

At the YA level, the game changes, and suddenly we stop laughing at ourselves, and boys and body issues virtually disappear. What would a book like Wintergirls I wonder, if the main characters had been boys? What if there were a novel about two boys starving themselves to try and be the skinniest until one of them ultimately dies? Is there room in the YA market for a book such as that, and more importantly, if it did, would boys actually read it?

7 Responses to Tough Topics and Boys

  1. jeffo Jun 2 2014 at 7:35 am #

    Men and boys absolutely feel self-conscious about their weight and about their bodies. I think the reason we don’t see these things, however, is that the perception is it’s a ‘girl problem’. I don’t know if it’s because guys suffer from it in less numbers than girls, are conditioned by society to keep it to themselves, or something else, but you really don’t hear about it in the same way. It could also be an attitude of “Guys don’t want to read about this sort of thing, they want to read about blah blah blah.”

    I think we need to give boys more credit for wanting to read a larger variety of things, and put it out t here for them.

    • Taurean J. Watkins Jun 10 2014 at 1:06 am #

      I agree we just don’t give boys and men enough credit and that’s hurting them in both the short and long term.

      NPR did a story on this subject some time ago that I think can be a great primer to start a dialogue with-
      http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/10/07/229164585/for-boys-with-eating-disorders-finding-treatment-can-be-hard

      That said, Patrick has a point, it’s often easier to face this stuff when it’s layered amongst other things in the story. That said, you shouldn’t use that layering to “dumb down” the issues, but show them off in a way that’s honest and also respectful. We’re often our own worst critics of the things we know we’re not proud of, and while others insensitivity to our struggles is hurftul, we often tell ourselves far harsher things in secret.

      It’s a tough tightrope to walk here.

      But as a guy myself, I do feel some of this is simply underestimating how-

      A. Self-reflective boys and men are in general.

      B. That even boys and men who DON’T prescribe to “traditional male roles” that involve sports in particular still have hang-ups about their bodies (I do and I’m closer to 30 than 20 now)

      We (indirectly/subconsciously if not directly) tell those “Man up/don’t cry” myths for so long we create boys and men with these shells that block out so much of what they need, leaving only anger, power, and fatally low levels of self-worth. Then we wonder why they don’t get help when the next big school shooting or suicide tragedy blasts across the world…

      We don’t make it easy for boys and men to honest with dehumanizing them. There aren’t enough (non-sports) places that can be that safe haven where they can cry, scream, whatever to get the pain out in a safe, healthy way. Where are the male empowerment programs that Dove does for girls and women? Why can’t there be some for non-athletes (student or pro) like me?

      I personally don’t have an eating disorder, but like anyone else struggle to eat healthier, and don’t exercise like I should. But I know what it’s like to feel alone in your pain. At least with girls and women, we have the support groups, and knowledge to fight the ignorance, especially they’re heavy for their age but not necessarily a health risk.

      The scary thing for me is learning that boys as young as 8 are bulimic or have anorexia.

  2. Nancy Tandon Jun 2 2014 at 8:07 am #

    This is very interesting; something I hadn’t thought about. Rachel – I would love to see the titles that you did find, out of curiousity. I haven’t read it, but the one that comes to mind for me is STAYING FAT FOR SARAH BYRNES by Chris Crutcher.

  3. Julie
    Julie Jun 2 2014 at 9:33 am #

    The book that comes to mind for me is FAT KID RULES THE WORLD by KL Going. That’s the only book I can think of with a boy protagonist that deals with weight issues/body image, but it is a great book. 🙂

  4. Stacy L Jun 2 2014 at 8:04 pm #

    I am a high school teacher, and over the past 11 years that I’ve been teaching, I have seen quite a few teen boys struggle with weight and eating disorders. Most of them have been athletes, especially wrestlers who have crazy extreme crash diets to make weight and football players who are eating excessive calories and protein shakes to bulk up. However, since these are sports related, it seen as desirable, rather than dangerous. Many of their parents, friends, and coaches encourage it for the sake of better performance. This year I even had a wrestler pass out in my English class because he hadn’t consumed anything for 3 days, only allowing himself 1 liter of water per day. The nurse was called to my room and he was treated, but the next day when he returned he was happy because he had made weight that next morning, so he said it was all worth it, and that his coach had congratulated him on such dedication to his sport. I think boys and girls would read a book about eating disorders if they revolved around sports. I think there must be some books out there about the dangers of steroids, which is a form of metabolic manipulation, but I think a book about making weight or bulking up would be something a lot of kids would read.

  5. Patrick Stahl Jun 2 2014 at 11:30 pm #

    It is my estimation as a teen boy (although one who doesn’t have any eating disorders) that most teen boys who have eating disorders aren’t the type who like to read mainstream YA books. If they’re reading anything, it’s probably going to be a speculative work, a thriller, or whatever series is most popular at the time. Teen boys with eating disorders are much more likely to bond with other teen boys with eating disorders, I suspect, than teen girls are. In this regard, I’m not sure that enough of them would venture toward a novel centered around the subject out of a need for “someone who understands” to constitute a solid market. A really good self-published novel may see moderate success, but this idea would probably work best if hidden within a bulk of other ideas in a less-mainstream sort of novel.

  6. G. Howell Jun 3 2014 at 2:44 pm #

    Two recent traditionally-published titles to note, featuring boys dealing with eating disorders:

    A Trick of Light (2013, Balzer & Bray) by Lori Metzger
    Skin and Bones (2014, Albert Whitman Teen) by Sherry Shahan

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