Warning: This article speaks about eating disorders, which may be triggering for some readers. Do not read this if rhetoric surrounding body image and eating disorders may harm you.
A regular on the Billboard Hot 100. Five time Grammy winner — and recipient of countless other awards. Fashion icon. Proud symbol for the LGBTQ+ community. Elton John — or “The Rocket Man” — was one of the biggest stars of the ’70s and ’80s. His successes are numerous and grand, and his presence remains powerful decades after his rise to enormous fame. Like many other iconic figures, however, John was a victim to years of debilitating ailments, including alcoholism, cocaine addiction and bulimia.
Elton John is certainly not the first celebrity to struggle with addiction, nor does his battle with an eating disorder make him unique to the celebrity community. The spotlight surely can create or aggravate body dysmorphia. Besides his exceptional talent, it is his candor, specifically regarding his eating disorder, that makes him distinctly valuable to his vast audience.
To the public eye, male eating disorders are as leafy plants in a barren desert: unlikely, unheard of, and almost counterintuitive. Indeed, the disorders are most often associated with women — women, whose bodies, it seems, have been subject to critical scrutiny since the beginning of time. Because of social conventions, however, men are not typically associated with body image issues and eating disorders.
It seems to make sense that eating disorders among men are rarely referenced: Women are statistically more likely to be diagnosed with eating disorders than men, although not by as much as we are led to believe. An estimated 25-40% of those affected by anorexia and bulimia are men, and almost half of those with binge eating disorders are male. Yet the National Eating Disorder Association reports that less than 1% of studies conducted on eating disorders involve male subjects.
In recent years, the satirical term “manorexic” surfaced, used to patronize men who appear to be starving themselves. The term implies that anorexia is a woman’s disease, and for a man to battle weight and body issues is not only out of the ordinary, but amusing. The word is a manifestation of the widely accepted phenomenon that eating disorders are antithetical to masculinity. For men in particular, and also for victims of all gender identities, society is not conducive to eating disorder recovery or attention.
Thus, it came as a surprise to many when Elton John publicly addressed his long-term struggle with bulimia. First seeking treatment in 1990, he began speaking openly in various interviews about his regular binging and purging episodes, and his simultaneous addiction to food and paranoia about his weight. He mentioned an encounter with his counselor, during which he was confronted about his health problems, including his destructive relationship with food. It was a turning point; he responded, “You’re right…I surrender.” He claims there were three words that changed his life: “I need help.” He described rehab as one of the most positive experiences of his life, one that allowed him a fresh start — as he put it, he felt like he was “learning to walk again.” His reflection on these years of his life, plagued by addiction and his eating disorder, provides victims both assurance that they are not alone, and the motivation to seek help.
Note that Elton John is not a particularly active warrior against the eating disorder epidemic; most of his charity is honorably focused on annihilating HIV/AIDS around the world. He does not speak of his eating disorder often, but when prompted, shares his experiences openly. This alone is a big step for the community of men affected by similar struggles.
Like almost all personal afflictions, eating disorders can be remedied by an awareness of company. In other words, it helps to know you are not an anomaly in nature, that others share your experiences, have fallen into the same vicious cycles, and, in some cases, have managed to climb out of them and live untethered. Men who do not feel comfortable in their own bodies and who take extreme measures to “fix” themselves would benefit from the representation and mutual understanding of the mental and physical toll of their unhealthy regimens.
Elton John is one of few celebrities — and fewer male celebrities — to offer this compassion to those suffering with eating disorders. Others to admit such torment in later years include Eminem, Russell Brand, Dennis Quaid and Zayn Malik — all of whom dealt with body image demons during the height of their fame. In his vivid piece “I Was a Baby Bulimic,” New York Times writer and UNC Chapel Hill graduate Frank Bruni detailed his decades-long, all-consuming feud with food and his own body. His testimony is vivid, it’s eye-opening, and, for some, it’s comfortingly relatable.
In each of their discussions of their eating disorders, the stars slip into a reflective vulnerability, speaking of the years in which they struggled with destructive routines involving binging, excessive exercise, undereating, obsessive calorie tracking and the like. Collectively, the men have millions of followers, upon whom they exert significant influence. Their stories may shift attitudes toward male eating disorders, instilling hope for better personal health for victims of the disorders; a desire to help for those who recognize them in others; and, for those who simply knew nothing about the disorders among men, awareness.
Of course the majority of those affected by eating disorders are not celebrities. Over 30 million Americans fall victim to the potentially fatal affliction, including an estimated 10 million men. It should also be noted that transgender and nonbinary people are much more likely to experience eating disorders than are cis women and cis men, with 16% of transgender people reporting experience with an eating disorder.
One of the first celebrities to expose his personal battle with bulimia, Elton John opened a gate of truth through which several other people have shared their own stories. His suffering, his search for help and his triumph over bulimia are enlightening for those who are blind to the rampant problem, and uplifting for those who suffer alone.