People told me I looked good. They commented on the weight I was losing and encouraged me to keep going. Once in a while, they’d ask how I was doing it. “Just diet and exercise,” I’d say. That always seemed to sound good to them.
They probably didn’t realize dieting meant that I was obsessively tracking my food. It wasn’t just calories I was tracking. I tracked things like protein and fiber. Everything had to hit the marks, or I’d feel terrible. Exercise was often punishment, especially if my food goals weren’t met. That was also tracked obsessively. I had to make sure I was burning more calories than I was taking in, sometimes to the point of making myself sick. Having to take a couple days off from exercise made me work that much harder when I was able to get back to it.
All of this was about me hating the way I looked. I felt fat and unhappy. I wanted it to change and as quickly as possible. I had been through this before and knew I could do it. Tracking everything was going to make it easier. I failed to recognize how it was all making me more miserable.
Much of the attention on body image is focused on women. Our culture constantly presents images of women that are impossible for real women to obtain. So it’s no wonder that females are about twice as likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder at some point in their lives. While females are certainly at a steep disadvantage when it comes to body image, it also appears we are neglecting the problem for males.
As previously mentioned, the chances for males to be diagnosed with eating disorders is about half that of females. Still, this means that about one-third of people suffering from an eating disorder are likely to be male. So why isn’t more attention being paid to them?
For one, we do think of eating disorders as a female issue. For a man to admit any health problem is often a sign of weakness. Having such a “feminine” problem can be especially stigmatizing to males. As we already know, it is virtually impossible to solve a problem if we deny having it in the first place. In addition, since we think of body image as a “female” problem, research and treatment has a strong gender bias. Males with eating disorders often have lower levels of testosterone which may not be treated and can lead to further health problems.
Because of the gender assumptions attached to eating disorders, research is limited for males. Recent studies have found that male survivors of childhood abuse may be more likely to engage in disordered eating, particularly binging. Because of societal expectations, males tend to desire a more muscular appearance as opposed to being as thin as possible. Still, males with eating disorders often carefully, even obsessively, control their eating to achieve a more lean appearance. Further, people often think of vomiting as the only form of purge activity. In fact, purging is often done through the use of diuretics, laxatives, and other drugs. One of the most common forms is actually exercise.
I have never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, but I have engaged in a quite a lot of disordered eating behaviors. I have used binge eating as a coping mechanism to deal with the anxiety and depression as a result of my childhood abuse. In fact, the person who had sexually abused me later repeatedly insulted my physical appearance, calling me fat and telling me that I needed to wear a bra. All throughout my life, I’ve struggled with my body image.
This led me to a lifetime of going back and forth with weight. I would binge eat to comfort my feelings. At some point, I would feel miserable about my weight and the way I looked and begin trying to change it. I would begin to diet and exercise as described before. My weight would go down significantly, and I would feel better for a while. That while would never last longer than a few months, and I would start binge eating once again to deal with my emotional pain. Even since turning 30, I have weighed less than 170 pounds and more than 250. I was unhealthy at both extremes, but people would often compliment me at the lower.
Women and girls are unquestionably at a steep disadvantage when it comes to body image. We must do better at helping them achieve healthy body images. We must also do the same for males in our society. At this point, the problem is mostly ignored for them.
Drew Sheldon is a disabled veteran, feminist and regular contributor to On the Verge Magazine. A survivor of numerous traumas and PTSD sufferer, he advocates passionately for his fellow survivors and all people struggling with mental illness. He was raised by a single mother whom he dearly misses and lives quietly by a little lake with his beautiful kitty Francesca. Find more from Drew on his site Straight White Male Seeks Knowledge.
Image credit: “The Future King” by Yoda Navarette