It’s clear I’m not the only one — and not the only guy — who sees something appealing here. If fasting started as a life hack for the billionaire class, which in turn saw would-be billionaires follow suit — as if food was the thing that was holding their start-ups back — today, run-of-the-mill bros everywhere are studying how to eat only during six-hour windows in the pages of Men’s Health and Men’s Journal.
We live in a time of wellness not as health but as transcendence. It’s not a coincidence that all of the supposed cures of wellness-adjacent diet hacking hinge on extreme behavior — fasting, or that daily coffee you put special butter in. The appeal of this brand of wellness has very little to do with being healthy. After all, most of what maintaining good health requires feels pretty good: eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, practice everything in moderation (even moderation), etc. With “biohacking,” the effects are ephemeral and the health claims are dubious. But what these crude approaches do offer is a sense of control in the moment — a way to tell yourself that you’re willing some change into being.
It would perhaps be going too far to call this kind of behavior an “eating disorder”; those are conditions that send people to the hospital and sometimes kill them, not a series of passing, momentary manias. But nor do I have a healthy relationship with food or exercise, a fact about my life that up until recently has been more or less obscured by my gender. After all, if I asked you to picture someone grappling with disordered eating, would you imagine a skinny teenage girl or me — a 33-year-old man who weighs 200 pounds and is flirting with exercise bulimia? I bet you a cookie you picked the former.
So if there’s an upside to the male-driven starvation-as-biohacking era, it might be that it reveals what disordered eating and exercising, stripped of their typical gender norms, are actually about.
We typically tend to think of these behaviors as feminine ones. As a result, there’s often an impression that they’re primarily about appearance and, sometimes, vanity. They can be, but this, of course, was never the whole story. Today’s eating disorder is as likely to come in the guise of a diet that purports to optimize you to survive and thrive in late capitalism as it is one that claims to make you beach-body ready. What these iterations reveal is how much more disordered obsessive behavior around food and exercise can be about, how many kinds of feelings this sort of behavior can become a vessel for. In an era when so many of us feel the world spiraling out of control, maybe it’s just the promise of being able to control something — to will a change, any change, into being — that’s the draw.
A few days ago, as I was thinking about writing this, I sat down in front of my computer and took a questionnaire from the National Eating Disorder Association to see whether I was at risk. I clicked through the questions — yes, I had gone to extremes to exercise after eating; no, I don’t tend to hide when I eat out of shame. At the end of it, the website told me I was at risk and should probably talk to someone.
When I mentioned those results to two close female acquaintances, both of them laughed before catching themselves, horrified. Both, for the record, are thoughtful, sensitive women who don’t cop to gender stereotypes. They were both familiar with my history of fixation with wellness fads. Maybe it was just the moment of that absurd history suddenly being recast with a new, worrisome weight. I laughed, too, for what it’s worth. It had all been a joke for so long. What was it now?
Thomas Stackpole is a senior editor at Boston Magazine.
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