In case you haven’t heard about it, UNINTERRUPTED is a sports content platform started by Lebron James that’s similar to The Player’s Tribune, but with video content, podcasts, etc. There’s a cute little animated mini-movie with Dee Gordon, who is part of the network, talking about the “Art of the Steal” which I highly recommend watching if you haven’t. Many outlets have “pivoted to video” lately with minimal success, but the content at UNINTERRUPTED isn’t lazy or poorly thought-through; the graphics are clean, the animations are clever, and the video style is closer to what you’d find on an ESPN 30 for 30. I mention this because today marks the release of an eight-minute mini-documentary featuring Mariners backup catcher Mike Marjama. In it, Marjama shares his story about his struggle with disordered eating and how his drive for perfection, instead of bringing him to the top of his sport, almost took his life. It’s beautifully made, powerful, and inspiring, and well worth the time it takes to watch it:
What’s especially gripping about this piece is how honest Marjama is about how his body image was tied to his conception of masculinity. “I was going to have no fat, be really muscular...I was going to be a man,” he says. Be a man. It’s a statement, but also a command. “He’s a dude,” scouts will say about an impressive prospect, or “that’s a guy.” The language of praise, in sports, is inextricable from the language of masculinity. So, too, is the language of rebuke: “don’t be a pussy.” The dichotomy is clear: man = strength, and anything that is not-man, in the prevailing definition, is weakness. In the Phillies locker room, if you don’t “man up” to the satisfaction of coaches, if you complain or struggle or generally evince a not-manly attitude, you will come back to your locker to find it adorned with the yellow “Sensitive Bus.” Man up, or find yourself banished to the Sensitive Bus.
But sensitive is exactly what a young Mike Marjama was when he worried he’d never get a girlfriend unless he had a six-pack. While the groundbreaking text Reviving Ophelia, which examined the negative effects societal expectations of womanhood cause in young girls, became a best-seller, was made into a movie, and has since gone through multiple reprintings, its companion text Real Boys (which contains a foreword from Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia) lags well behind in sales; the most recent edition is almost twenty years old. Thinking back to his younger self, Marjama says he wanted to know, “how can I be that guy?” How can I be that guy, a dude, the man. Like their female counterparts, young men work to solve this question with very little support—maybe even less. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) reports that “subclinical” eating disordered behavior (binging, purging, fasting, etc.) is nearly as common among men as it is among women, and yet men are underrepresented in clinical treatment. Marjama is an exception; after his parents watched him slice an almond into quarters to eat over Thanksgiving Dinner, he got help—even though he didn’t want it.
Eating disorders, at their core, are largely about control. Someone who has been traumatized may develop an eating disorder as a way to exact a measure of control over their life; some diagnoses (like anxiety) or personality types, combined with cultural or life factors, trigger a higher incidence of disordered eating.
Mike Marjama likes to control his environment. “NUHHH!” he yells in frustration at a ball that gets too far away from him during a blocking drill. “No, not today,” he reprimands another escapee, snaring the rolling orb and shepherding it to the backstop. Not all young males will develop an eating disorder; not all control-oriented “OCD” (Marjama’s description) types will; not all athletes will. But combine those together, and it’s a perfect storm for disordered eating.
Mike Marjama is lucky. He grew up in a household with loving, attentive parents who noticed his disordered eating and worrisome workout regimen, as hard as he tried to hide it. He was able to see a specialist (featured in the mini-doc), and even as his natural instinct to control situations led him to resist it, he was able to get the help he needed. He is blessed with a drive for success that powered him through his darkest moments—although to be fair, it’s the same drive that worked on him in a negative way when he was pedaling an exercise bike in a homemade sauna. Marjama just had to apply his natural energy to getting better. That’s harder than it sounds, and it requires help.
Having accepted his diagnosis and worked to conquer it, Mike Marjama now hopes to be a beacon of hope for others who are struggling, to open a conversation that is too often buried. If you Google “MLB player eating disorder” the top results are about a Penn State kicker, Pablo Sandoval (!), and Mike Marjama. Tackling this subject involves not just looking to the health aspect, but grappling with prevailing cultural ideas of masculinity and femininity, and how they are damaging our young people. It’s change, and change frightens people, which is why trailblazers like Marjama, why documentaries like this, matter so much.
Kudos to Mike Marjama for speaking openly about the subject and being a trailblazer in helping to remove the stigma of disordered eating in professional sports. If he can do it, you can too. If you, or someone you know, is struggling with an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Helpline at 800.931.2237 or visit NationalEatingDisorders.org. You are not weak. You are stronger than you know, and you can go places you never imagined.