‘Eating disorders are unashamedly gendered’: a male sufferer tells his story
‘Bulimia was an addictive habit which kept my anxiety at bay’
This week is Eating Disorders Awareness week.
I was on a holiday with the lads in Greece. And after two years of attempting to mask frequent mid-meal trips to the loo, followed by washing the blood from my fingers, I realised that my cover was collapsing. I knew people were speculating that I had a weird relationship with food: my frequent starving and binging had become harder and harder to hide. And the fear of going to university and social eating becoming a daily ritual only made the condition worse.
Even if I could keep my sketchy habits under wraps, my appearance suggested a problem. My husky voice, gaunt face, erratic temperament and unnecessarily baggy clothes meant those close to me were concerned – they could tell that things weren’t normal. Gradually, it became necessary to start telling my closest friends about my condition. It just wasn’t possible to hide from those I was spending almost every waking hour with. I had lived in denial about my bulimia for years – but I finally appreciated that it was time to seek help and be more open about it.
Eating disorders have been unashamedly gendered. They’re seen as a first-world illness suffered by image-conscious, neurotic girls. While official figures state that they do affect more girls than boys, this could be because male sufferers tend to be more elusive. For example, over-exercising coupled with a high protein diet – relatively common in males in their early 20s – could be symptoms of an eating disorder, but many would perceive this as healthy behaviour. And many tests have a gender bias because they were created for women.
“Conflicting and poor quality data is one of the biggest problems in pinning down the full extent of eating disorders in the UK and indeed the world,” states the website for the charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too. Bulimia is the most common eating disorder present in the male population, and it is estimated, roughly, that males account for 5-10 per cent of all patients with bulimia.
My turning point was a documentary about the high death rates and increased risk of heart attacks associated with bulimia. I’d previously been to a doctor and been subscribed a handful of drugs to deal with the anxiety he believed was causing the condition, but it was only after I left school that I felt properly comfortable to start talking about it to my peers, and I agreed with friends that I could no longer pretend as if all were normal.
I could only talk openly to a few of them: I had been at an all-boy’s school, and I worried it was something the other boys just wouldn’t get. I assumed it would have led to childish, ignorant ridicule – that people wouldn’t appreciate the severity of bulimia, or understand the reasons behind it. After all, explaining the need to vomit after every meal or starve and binge for days on end doesn’t add to my credentials as a “lad”. And anyone who has ever spent any time at a boys school will know that “lad points” are the key currency in gaining peer approval. The perception of it as a girls’ disease and the associations of it with image and body insecurities wasn’t something I wanted attached to my name.
The reality was, that instead of ridicule, everyone found it pretty awkward to deal with. A few of my friends kept on making jokes about how skinny I was, which was bizarre (and frustrating) because I’d incessantly explained that I wasn’t particularly weight conscious. And it was almost like people were trying to reassure me that I was thin, which I was aware of.
The ‘reasons’ for my bulimia were complicated. I think for me it was an addictive habit that kept my anxiety at bay. Some people run off for a cig to keep things under control: I’d binge on crappy food and vomit it up again. The sense of control became an obsession and actually, oddly, satisfied me.
I had feared that because of the misconceptions and stigma surrounding eating disorders, others would think I had an effeminate and vain obsession. In reality, I was anxious and panicky. The fear of people knowing about it only made this worse though, weirdly, also more exciting.
There are very few male spokespeople on eating disorders, and there were few people to offer advice, and no one to explain it to those who were ignorant of it. On the other hand, I was hyper-aware of all the boys at my school who displayed very similar habits to me. Perhaps I was over-speculating but some estimates predict that men make up 25 per cent of those who suffer from eating disorders – it is very possible that many of us were suffering alone and in fear of being misunderstood.
It is still a topic I feel deeply uncomfortable talking about. But doing so it is the only way we can remove the stigma of male eating disorders and prevent so so many people suffering in silence.
If you are worried about yourself or someone else, Beat, the eating disorders awareness charity, can provide support and advice.