We Asked Men About Their Eating Disorders
I knew that I couldn’t be the only one in my peer group who’s had trouble with food.
Lead photo via Flickr user Magnus D
I'm 16 years old and I'm kneeling beside the toilet in my family's bathroom. I am trying to make myself throw up. For the past fifteen minutes my fingers—first one, then two—have been dancing around the back of my throat. I can feel my knuckles push hard against the roof of my mouth. My fingernails prick the gap between the soft squish of my tongue and the rougher edges of my esophagus. For a second I almost gag. I feel a little jolt of excitement but then…nothing. I listen to the running sink and then reach for my toothbrush on the counter. The toothbrush always feels harsher than my fingers do, but I ate bread at lunch. This has to get done. I turn the toothbrush to its handle, I don't want to ruin the bristles, but just as I'm about to do the act the bathroom door opens. My mom and I briefly make eye contact then she closes the door. I'm ashamed. I feel embarrassed. It's like I've been caught stealing or jerking off. I put the toothbrush down, sit and the floor, and I sob. A day later when I weight myself I realize that I am down two pounds. I suck in my stomach and take a selfie in the bathroom mirror that I later post to Myspace. I feel validated and whole. Variations of these events have been happening for two years and will continue to happen until I leave home for university.
I've wrestled with an eating disorder, on and off, since I was a teenager. The statistics about eating disorders in Canada are mostly based on a 2002 survey. It says 1.5 percent of the population between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four are diagnosed with some type of eating disorder, and around 10 percent of that are males. While in my life I've known other men who have struggled with food, we've rarely talked about it. Whenever the subject has come up, it's quickly glossed over with jokes about two-a-days at the gym or the denial of t-shirt sizes. The closest thing I ever got to a real conversation about my eating disorder happened when a friend and I were blackout drunk after a work party. He told me about how as a kid his mother would make the family weigh in person by person on after Sunday dinner and record their weights in a note pad. I explained that growing up my dad used hand puppet called "the ignorant moose" to point out how much fatter I was than my brother. We laughed off the anecdotes and continued to drink.
While conversations about female body image and the struggle with food have slowly been creeping into larger societal conversations, the topic of male eating disorders is still something that's rarely spoken of in public. There is a stigma for men about admitting their problems with food. Guys are supposed to be able to eat a lot. Guys aren't supposed to be too worried about the way they look. We're not supposed to talk about our feelings. I knew that I couldn't be the only one in my peer group who's had trouble with this, but for a long time I didn't know how to ask. Recently I put out the call on social media asking if any men would be willing to talk to me about their struggles with food. Slowly but surely the private messages started to fill my inbox. There were a lot more than I would have expected. In the following days I had candid and brutally honest conversations about how eating disorders have affected some of my friends. Below are stories from those conversations, the hope is that they serve as a reminder to any guys that struggle with food that they're not the only ones.
Jeremy Hammond, writer at The Hard Times and host of 'Ballin' Out Super'
I think it really started for me when I was fourteen. I went to this art camp where there were a lot of cool older punks. They were the dudes I wanted to be like and the girls I wanted to date. It seemed like every cool punk had a beautiful, svelte, hairless, physique. I was a doughy teen and my torso hair was growing in the shape of a fucking elm. Everyone looked like a sexy dolphin and I looked like I'd get your order wrong at a deli.
It was around then I remember first noticing these less flattering aspects of my body—I had hit my first growth spurt but still had a lot of baby features. When I'm overweight, my body tends to hold fat in weird places. My stomach goes forward like I'm pregnant. I get weird little cone boobs. Puberty really started to hit hard, so sex became a pretty big occupant of my psyche, too. I think one of the common bedfellows of desire for sex is introspection as to why nobody wants to fuck you, and for me it became pretty hard to deny that my weird misshapen body was a big contributor to the issue.
It's also around then that the "scene kid" thing really blew up, so everyone wanted to be rail thin, androgynous and have interesting hair. There were these famous MySpace kids who looked like fucking elves from Lord of the Rings. Online was worse than real life, honestly. In the real world you saw all kinds of body types, and you saw how unflattering those haircuts could look but online everyone looked like some kind of ethereal emo angel shrouded in soft light and female attention.
I grew up in a single parent home, and by this time my brother was away at college. My mom worked two jobs, so I was eating dinner alone fairly often. I think being independent in that way made it easy to just stop eating without anybody asking any questions about it. I spent about six months trying my best to only eat solid food twice a week. I would drink tons of coffee and Diet Coke as a means of filling my stomach and I guess the sugar in the Coke would keep me from passing out. When I did eat, it was a very ceremonial process—I would only eat foods I hated, or that were difficult to eat. A big favorite was stale bread soaked in vinegar. I wanted food to feel like punishment, and the pain of hunger to feel like my normal state. Getting to sleep at night was always hard, and I would go without it pretty frequently. Any amount of strenuous activity would make me dizzy. I remember passing out skateboarding a few times. Honestly it's hard to remember the time period, because my brain was fuzzy and useless for so much of it.
It took a long time for people to even realize I was losing weight at an unnatural pace. At that age your body changes a ton regardless, and people could dismiss it as me growing into my body. Being a boy didn't help either. Nobody really thinks of boys as being susceptible to body dysmorphia or whatever. I was a fourteen year old who dropped forty pounds because I wanted to look like Connor fucking Oberst, but it was still easy for people to assume nothing was wrong. It's insane, my therapist knows all about my history with eating disorders, but still frequently references the root of anorexia being "conflict between young girls and their mothers."
I still hate my body, but I've accepted that there are aspects of it I can't change. What's toughest now is losing weight in a healthy way through diet and exercise. There's always going to be that call of the wild in me, the little voice that says I should be eating less and if I just had more control I could lose the weight faster. There's always going to be the voice when I hit my goal weight that says I could be thinner if I only cared more.
Jesse Byiers, puppeteer
It's the start of grade five, my family is living in Alberta, and I'm pushing 240 pounds. I'm 5'3" maybe. I'll be about 260 by grade six. I don't remember being big in grade four. And I guess in my mind I wasn't, though the thought 'he become fat over summer vacation' seems kind of ridiculous.
I'm outside on the playground, or lack thereof, on/near benches and I'm with people who I would call my friends for the last time. We're hanging out with the grade seven kids. His name his Colby or Cody or something redneck. I disagree with him? There's a small debate. Now I'm not a smart kid and I'm still not one by a long shot, but clearly I must have been on top this one. He says whatever and ends the argument by calling me bitch tits. His girlfriend laughs. My friends laugh. And that's when I became fat.
I started developing an unhealthy relationship to exercise. Always trying to lose weight, pushing myself to the point of throwing up and never letting myself off the hook, because losing weight means exiting the world in which I have to live in. And here's the thing: I'll show pictures to people now, who didn't know me then, and am often met with 'you weren't that fat.' And physically, no maybe not, but that's how I was identified all through school to graduation and I played into that role so much so that I haven't unidentified as fat.
I have Binge Eating Disorder. Unlike bulimia, binge eating is not followed by purging, but excessive exercise, or fasting. I experience guilt, shame, and distress about my binge eating, which can lead to more binge eating. This can look like a lot of different thing. It was taking the protein bars from the top cabinet when I was a kid because they taste like chocolate bars and going out behind the woodshed in my backyard to eat two or three in a sitting until my parents move them because protein bars are fucking expensive. It's sneaking out to the fridge in college, when my roommates were asleep, and I thought they couldn't hear me making my many sick sad sandwiches to bring to bed, only to get up right after eating those to make maybe one more and eat something filled with sugar. It's that fact that If I do not portion my food, or have someone cut me off, I will and have (multiple times, even in my adult years) eat until I'm sick. It's sleeping. It's unaware. It's unapologetic. It's well I didn't eat breakfast or lunch, so this probably isn't that bad for me. A shotgun wedding. It's nothing can go to waste.
As I said before, I struggle. The patterns are still very much a strong influence in my life and force me to be very conscious of how I eat. My partner will always check in with me and help me with portion control and just eating when I'm supposed to. And I mean, I live alone, so even though I have that support group I still have to go home and hold myself accountable for what I bring into my house. Working in an art studio (and it's a dream come true and I love it) can be difficult as I'm sitting all day and it's such a mental stretch that often I just don't do the exercise I should be doing after work, which only just adds. I unfortunately don't have an answer of how it gets better, but that's the way it goes sometimes.
Jiv Parasram, cultural worker
Shortly after graduating from university I was supporting myself largely by working at a brewery, both in the sampling room and on the bottling line. I ended up getting injured and herniating a disc in my back. I couldn't really walk for a long time and was in pretty excruciating pain. I'm also allergic to painkillers so I didn't have many options but to just take it. I guess there's a certain hyper-masculine-martyrdom about that, but really it just sucked. I started becoming aware of my size during this time period. I wasn't able to walk which lead to gaining a lot of weight. That lead to being outright ignored or actually berated by my partner at the time because I "wasn't fun." That was a pretty abusive relationship on the whole, and we had only started dating after I'd lost a considerable amount of weight in my undergrad. For the record, I wouldn't say that the reason we started dating was due to the weight loss, but it did help build my confidence. I'd been quite heavy for a long time and being slimmer kind of felt like a new lease on life. Having the weight back and my mobility compromised took a lot of that away. I was worried about what is was doing to my relationship and it got me thinking more broadly about how I interact with food.
My family wasn't very well off when we were growing up. We weren't poor either, but things could get tight. So we were shoveling pasta and beans, or rice and lentils, because they were cheap and we didn't eat meat. I never specifically thought of us as not very well nourished but I did grow up with a fair amount of joint problems. I had a bit of a wake up moment when I was a teenager working at a specialty health food store for pets. My manager was training me and explaining this one kind of dog food, he said "Basically grocery store dog food is all filler. If you ate just rice and lentils your whole life you'd be malnourished, so why would you do that to your dog?" I thought about it.
There's also this conundrum culturally where my mother and my aunts, all the motherly figures in the family consistently want you to eat when you're a kid. They want you to just eat as much as possible. And then if you get heavy as an adult—that's not OK. I still get a bit of anxiety when she comes to town. I try to eat clean and add more cardio whenever my Mom is coming by with the hopes she won't tell me I've gained weight. I thought about that, too.
I think about my weight a lot, but I don't know if I've ever suffered from it so bad as to be comparable with people who legitimately have lived with body dysmorphia and anorexia. But at the same time, it could also be that I've never been assessed and don't want to believe that I have lived with these conditions amongst my mixed bag of issues. I use an app to track calories and exercise, and I know that it's always a slippery slope till I'm obsessing over it. When things are so much easier to be quantified it gets a lot easier to focus on the numbers rather than how you're actually feeling health wise. On all levels of health be it spiritually, mentally, or physically. There is also the fact that fasting can be an important part of my religion as a Hindu. I think there's a logic and wisdom to it too when you look at the lunar calendar as to when we tend to fast. It has to do with making your body more in tune spiritually, and also just giving the digestive system a rest. But it's also, like many things, an appropriated thing here in the west. The reality is that when you fast, you're usually going to lose weight. Often very quickly. I can tell myself that my fasting is all about changing my relation to food, or about gaining spiritual attunement, but when I start extending that fast well beyond the traditional period I know it's becoming an issue. I also find it to be a bit of a hin-don't so to speak. Cause at that point it's not about spiritual health. It's about the physical self. And philosophically, the physical self is itself an illusion. So if anything it takes me away from the religion, and also is just unhealthy for maintaining the body I'm in. But being in the body I'm in can be difficult.
Glyn Bowerman, journalist
When I was fifteen we were on a family trip to PEI. I put on my bathing suit, and ran to the beach. Obesity is a problem in my family. When I reached my parents, my brother and sister, my dad said, in front of everyone, "looks like I'm not the only one in the family that needs to go on a diet." I had literally never thought about my weight before that. After that I started jogging strictly to lose weight. Things just kind of progressed from there. As I reached my late teens, I think on some level I wanted to look freakish. I can remember wanting to look visibly shocking to people, the way the Joker is drawn in Batman comics. I can't honestly remember why though. At one point, at 18, I weighed 118 pounds, (I'm 5'10"). It was less about a goal weight, and more just testing how far I could go.
By the time I got to second year university, I had what I realize now was a massive depression. I wasn't in the program I wanted to be in. I wasn't fulfilled by the classes. I was hopelessly in love with someone, but I didn't have the courage to tell her, and never would. I was wrestling with losing the faith I was raised in, with forming my political worldview, everything. I became dogmatic about every aspect of my life. I wrote obsessively in a journal, even when hanging out with friends (which I imagine was disturbing), I swore off masturbation, eating for pleasure, and anything I thought of as an indulgence. Control became the most important thing in my life. I was proud to be able to control everything beyond the basic necessities of life. Hypocritically, though, I was smoking weed all day, and getting drunk every weekend, which somehow didn't factor into my "no indulgences" thing. Still, I felt a lot of pride in how small I had become. I looked at the people around me as selfish slobs, at the mercy of their desires. I felt superior to people, until I inevitably gave into literal starvation, ate something, or even binged, and absolutely hated myself for it.
My daily routine was something like this. I would jog around the perimeter of York University, twice a day. If I didn't, I would be furious with myself. Any time I did eat, I felt like I lost some battle. I was humiliated. I had a book that listed the amount of calories in every kind of food. I would try not to eat more than 1,000 calories a day, which was a limit I set pretty much arbitrarily. There was a time I would only eat apples, one packet of unsweetened oatmeal during the day, and microwaved carrots with Matouks Caribbean hot sauce for dinner. Looking back I realize how sick I'd become.
Eventually when I was around my smallest and looking really bad my friend Cam approached me. He said: "you look sick, dude. Really, are you okay?" Until that happened, it had literally never occurred to me that I was doing something harmful, or that other people could notice. I just thought I was taking control of my life. Having a trusted friend express concern cracked the thing wide open. It made me start asking questions about where this would ultimately lead.
I'm lucky. After about six years of developing these kind of extreme thought patterns, I was able to shake it off fairly easily. I took stock of what I was losing, I had the presence of mind to recognize I was a stupid kid wrestling with how to be an independent adult, and that I had fucked it up. Now, as a real ass grown up, I can look back at that kid and understand he was depressed, and lost, and working through some shit without the proper tools to do it. I pretty much eat what I like now. I have a healthy attitude towards the right kind of exercise. I even became pretty confident in my looks, and my personality. I realize it's not that easy for other people who have gone down similar holes, so again, I say I'm lucky. And relatively happy. I'm also extremely grateful to have had a friend confident enough to reach out.
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