Eating Disorders Beat Him Down, But Drag Lifted Him Back Up

A young man’s journey recovering from eating disorders through drag

Makeup powder and glittery eyeshadow scattered on a dining table. Black corsets, wigs, and stockings spread out on a couch. By a living room window overlooking all of lower Manhattan in a sunny spring afternoon, a young man busily maneuvered an eyelash curler on his lashes. Layers of glue and foundation had completely concealed his bushy brows and transformed them into thin arches.

His name was Robbie Gutman, a sophomore studying marketing and fashion at New York University. Gutman, along with the three other boys diligently putting makeup on their faces, was preparing for the annual drag show at NYU, the biggest event of the year organized by Delta Lambda Phi: Beta Xi (DLP), a fraternity that caters to gay, bisexual, and progressive men.

As Gutman picked up a 39-color eyeshadow palette and started dabbing a mix of purple, pink, and rose onto his eyelids, he glanced at his phone. Close to three hours till show time. He reminded himself: I need to leave time for a quick bite.

Like many of the first-time performers, Gutman felt jittery. He had no formal dance training. His choreography incorporated high kicks and baton twirling and his studies had left little time for practice. But for Gutman, the stakes were much higher. Sixteen months earlier, he had been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by an obsessed focus on losing weight. It had forced him to drop out of school, to undergo months of therapy and to carefully monitor his every bite. The performance would be an opportunity for him to prove to his family and friends that he had finally began to put his illness behind him.

There’s a negative thought pattern to the mental illness — a voice that Therese Waterhous, an expert in nutrition and eating disorders, referred to as the “eating disorder voice”. It is a separate entity that is counter to a patient’s healthy voice. “It’s like a little monkey on your back that tells you all kinds of usually untrue things about your body,” Waterhous said. “About whether you deserve to eat, how much you should exercise, and also makes over-focus on food components and calories.”

Gutman, who started developing symptoms of his eating disorder as he began to prepare for college, described it as a “horrible, awful voice” that always doubted whatever he was doing.

“The voice is constantly there and it never leaves. But once you stop listening, it gets weaker,” Gutman said. “At the end of the day, I just want to be happy, to feel satisfied with my life, and drag was definitely a step in the right direction.”

In fashion magazines and television talk shows, eating disorders are often portrayed as a women’s disease. But men account for 25 percent of patients, research shows. Many suffer in silence in a society that often portrays men as weak when they undergo therapy or seek counseling.

Studies have shown that men with anorexia nervosa have higher mortality rates, in part because they are often diagnosed later than women, due to the stereotype that males don’t have eating disorders. Brian Cuban, an attorney and author who has written about eating disorders in men, said that the number of male suffering from eating disorders are likely to be undercounted because men are much less likely to recognize or verbalize their struggles.

For a cisgender young gay man like Gutman, the ongoing experience of suffering and recovering from eating disorders has been a transformative, two-year journey. Little by little, he has learned to put his struggles behind him, even as he remains haunted by the possibility of relapse.

Research says that people recovering from anorexia have a relapse rate of 36 percent, and the highest risk is in the first 18 months after treatment.

It had been seven months since Gutman returned to college, and his family remained fearful that he would relapse. Even as he prepared for the performance with confidence and enthusiasm, doubts dogged the people who loved him most.

“It’s always in the back of my mind that he might falter,” Elaine Gutman, Robbie Gutman’s mother, said. “We’ll be ready for that.”

In drag makeup, Gutman put on a black faux fur coat and walked to a nearby convenience store, paid for a roast beef sandwich and returned to his dorm. He had 15 minutes to eat before getting dressed and heading to the NYU auditorium. He walked around the living room as he munched on his sandwich and watched the other students finish their makeup.

“Hey Robbie, am I doing this right?” a fellow performer asked, smudging the purple glue stick onto his eyebrows to smooth the hair.

Taking a bite of the sandwich, Gutman considered his friend’s face like an art critic examining a painting, and said, “You need to start over.”

While his friend groaned, Gutman checked out his own makeup in the mirror. A perfectly contoured face smiled back. Below shades of pink eyeshadow and exquisitely etched eyeliners, a pair of brown eyes stared back, full of confidence and anticipation.

***

In high school, Gutman spent a lot of time with his best friend, Alyssa Green. He liked hanging out with both Green and her sister, who did his makeup for fun. As he strived to be the best version of himself, he could not shake off the memory of being made fun of as an overweight kid before high school. So he started losing weight. He became obsessed with weight loss. Sometimes, he wore baggy clothes to make his weight loss less obvious. But whenever Green hugged him, she could feel the bones underneath.

An estimated 1 in 10 people in the United States have eating disorders, though many experts believe that number is much higher, as many people who suffer from the disorder never get formally diagnosed. In college or graduate school, where many students embrace unrealistic ideas about body image, people are more likely to struggle with eating disorders, according to an article by Robin Boudette and Anne. M. Slocum McEeneaney, experts on eating disorders at Princeton University and New York University. They explained that the search for belonging might lead some to become over-focused on body image and appearance, “which is a significant risk factor for developing an eating problem.”

Underlying factors such as low self-esteem and lack of self-worth often drive the illness, according to Cuban, the lawyer and author who has been in recovery from bulimia for 13 years.

“The biggest psychological struggle was the overpowering shame,” said Cuban, describing the way he felt about binging and purging. But throwing up could also bring him a feeling of peace. “The feeling that the next day, everything was going to be okay. The next day, I would feel like I belong. The next day, I wouldn’t hate my body. The next day, I wouldn’t see a monster when I looked in the mirror.”

Robbie Gutman applies eyeshadow in the mirror. Photo by Zijia Eleanor Song.

Family pressure contributed to the stress. Gutman said that his parents constantly reminded him and his brother to “watch what you eat, slow down, eat less.” Though his mother, Elaine Gutman, explained that it was a reminder for them to be healthy, to him, it became an ingrained exercise. He suppressed his hunger and told himself “no, no you can’t” every time he felt hungry. “I remember being hungry all the time,” he said.

When Gutman first went to college, his symptoms got worse. “A lot of the day I would spend just not eating,” Gutman said. When he visited his friend, Andrew Schlager’s dorm, he searched for anything to snack on but declined offer of food. He got even thinner, but hid it from his parents.

In November of freshman year, Gutman went home for Thanksgiving to Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, where the median income is 45.5 percent higher than the national average. Elaine Gutman took him for clothes-shopping. As soon as she opened the curtain of the dressing room, she saw her son’s thin, shirtless body. She started crying.

The next day, at the doctor’s office, Gutman was diagnosed with an eating disorder.

During winter break of 2019, Gutman started meeting with a team of therapist and dieticians three times a week for two hours at a time. However, since he was still new to the process, the physicians were reluctant to pressure him, and the treatment was not effective, according to Mrs. Gutman.

Those days, Elaine Gutman recalled, a simple breakfast required careful calculation. Toast a slice of Dave’s Killer bread, because it had high calories. Slather jam or peanut butter on it. Mix yogurt with full sugary granola. Add a glass of juice. To ensure that Gutman ate 5000 calories of food everyday, per the dietician’s request, anything that was seemingly healthy but high-caloried would end up in his plate.

For Gutman, being forced to eat was extremely hard. Many nights, his parents would hear a machine noise coming from the exercise room and catch him riding a peloton, trying to work off any weight he might have gained from eating a proper meal. Eventually, she said, they had to hide all the workout shoes.

The treatment also took a toll on Gutman’s relationship with his mother. To help with Gutman’s recovery, everyone in the family had to observe the same 5000-calory diet. But it was too fattening for Elaine Gutman, who was concerned with her own weight. “He did not understand that,” she recalled. “He said that I was a hypocrite.” The contention around calories, according to Gutman, “put a big strain on their relationship because I was like a full-on monster at that point.”

In January, Gutman went back to school, thinking that everything would go back to normal and he would continue his college career. Per his family’s request, he started a new therapy, but was soon told that he needed to be sent somewhere to be watched overnight. On the day of his 19th birthday, February 4th, Gutman left school and went home. His parents wanted to send him to Oregon for overnight care. But after begging and pleading, Gutman started full-day treatment at Monte Nido, an eating disorder center west of Philadelphia, a 15-minute drive from home.

For two weeks, Gutman received medical and psychiatric, as well as nutritional programs and behavior training. But his blood pressure remained low at 43mm Hg. A normal diastolic pressure (lower number reading) should be between 60 and 80mm Hg. A reading of 30 is considered life-threatening. It was a wake-up call.

“I know your eating disorder wants you to stay like this,” Mrs. Gutman told her son. “But look at your friends. Everyone is going on with their lives and having a great time. And you are in this purgatory. Is this what you want out of life?”

Helpless and terrified, Gutman finally realized that if he continued on the same path, he would someday be “found either dead or go into cardiac arrest and ended up in a hospital.” So he finally agreed to go to a hospital in Princeton for overnight treatment. The night before he left, his dad sat in bed with him till sunrise.

Gutman admires his eye makeup against the sun. Photo by Zijia Eleanor Song.

In the dorm, Gutman finished swallowing the last bite of the sandwich and headed to his room. He returned with a black corset, a bright pink lace tutu dress, a pair of skin-colored stockings, and a multi-cotton-candy-colored shaggy fringe jacket. Each piece of the outfit was carefully picked out to present his drag persona, Rachel Schwartz, Gutman explained, was the stylish teenaged girl you went to camp with and hated.

For a week, at the hospital in Princeton, Gutman lived among young people with similarly severe conditions. It seemed like forever. Elaine Gutman described the place as a “psychiatric ward” and a “lockdown unit.”

Hospital staff screened all visitors for metal objects that might be used for self-harm upon entrance, and patients could not close the door when they went to the bathroom to prevent them from induced vomiting.

Seeing Gutman there left his parents feeling heartbroken. But it also became a motivation for all of them. Treatment of eating disorders typically requires several steps of therapy and medical assistance with decreasing intensity. When Gutman’s condition improved slightly, doctors suggested that he move to another facility for care. This time, he would have to spend eight weeks at an out-of-state facility.

Gutman refused. All he wanted was to go home and back to a normal life. But his condition was not stable enough for Monte Nido to admit him again. Upon hearing the news on the phone, Gutman burst into tears — he felt hopeless, no one was going to help him.

Elaine Gutman stepped up for her son. “I told him that I would not rest until I found a spot for him,” she said. “But you have to do what I do. You have to eat what I tell you to eat.” To earn a chance to talk to Monte Nido about Gutman’s admission, she promised the facility to bring Gutman’s weight from 115 up to 140 pounds in a few weeks. She was told that it was impossible. She proved them wrong.

Due to long-time starvation, Gutman’s body was in a state that burned calories faster than usual. To compensate for the energy loss each day, Elaine Gutman adjusted his diet from 5000 to 8000 calories a day, coupled with zero exercise. They gained weight together.

Last spring, a few weeks into treatment at Monte Nido, Gutman went back to New York University for his fraternity’s annual drag show, surprising his friends. “His transformation physically was quite striking,” Schlager recalled. “He looked a lot healthier and happier.” Gutman hugged his brothers. He cheered as they danced on stage. He laughed out loud.

“When I went back to New York, the skies weren’t as dark anymore,” he said.

Even after he went back home to continue treatment, the happy moments with friends lingered with him. One day, he came back home with a pair of black knee-high platform heels. Elaine Gutman was surprised. “What are these?”

“I’m gonna do the drag this year,” Gutman announced proudly.

“You’re going to hurt yourself in these,” she was worried.

“That’s why I bought them in advance to practice.”

In the beginning, Elaine Gutman laughed while she watched her son wobble in heels. Little by little, Gutman improved and started striding around the house. Soon enough, he was practicing dance moves in the basement, doing spins and splits. It worried Elaine Gutman at first, because dancing consumed energy. But gradually, she realized that Gutman truly loved practicing. Best of all, he ate more.

***

Gutman put on his outfit and stepped into the black heels. The young man with eating disorders disappeared. In his place, Rachel Schwartz in the pink tutu dress and purple curly hair. She flipped her hair and pouted her lips.

Gutman does not consider himself to be a drag queen. He doesn’t want to pursue a career in drag. For him, drag is a way to channel his passion for fashion. Whether he embodies Rachel Schwartz or lives in his own skin, he puts on makeup, collects stylish clothes and accessories, practices splits and catwalk at home, and goes out for a drink whenever he feels dainty. It is a way for him to love himself and his body.

Even now, Gutman can hear the eating disorder voice in his head questioning his decisions. Comments on weight, numbers, and exercise sometimes trigger him. Concerns with food still haunt him. Recently, he dreamt of a girl he met at treatment ending up back at the facility. But he has learned to ignore the voices and focus on positive emotions.

“Yesterday my life was duller // Now everything’s technicolor.”

“This is the part when I say I don’t want ya // I’m stronger than I’ve been before.”

Ariana Grande’s song blasts as Schwartz sways her hips and kicks her leg high above her head. Lights dazzle on her body and cast an elegant shadow on the stage. The audience screams when she smoothly shakes off the purple wig and reveals her short brown hair underneath.

Suddenly, the brown wig flies off and drops on the ground. Schwartz is left with nothing but a skin-colored skull cap on her head. Everyone falls silent, but she dances on. With the final note of music, she jumps straight up in the air and, as the whole room watches, lands in a straight split. In an uproar of applause, Gutman throws his head back and looks up. Life awaits.