During my freshman year at Penn State University, I began to starve myself. I thought that if I were thin enough, I would be accepted. I would no longer be ugly. I wouldn't be alone all the time. I would go on dates. I would kiss a girl. I would finally be accepted. I survived on less than 500 calories a day for much of that year and subsequently became bulimic. That would last 27 years.
At that time, there was no public awareness of eating disorders for either men or women. Singer Karen Carpenter had not yet passed way from complications related to anorexia nervosa. Her death would bring eating disorders to the national spotlight but also begin the stereotype that eating disorders are a "female problem."
In 1980, I had no know idea the words bulimia or anorexia existed. They were simply behaviors I engaged in to survive day to day. To take control. Control of a body that repulsed me every time I looked in the mirror. A shattered image that took shape long before, dating back to severe fat shaming at home as a child. As a teenager, words like "fat pig" and "dumb bunny" were regularly thrown at me like shards of glass by my mother, just as her mother had done to her. These things often run down through generations. "Sticks and stones" is one of the biggest body image fallacies. Words can hurt. Words can do permanent damage. Especially when spoken to a child by those who he/she looks to for love, acceptance and friendship.
As result of the fat shaming, depression set in. My eating increased along with my desire to isolate myself. The verbal assaults were not limited to home. I would endure bullying and fat teasing at school, culminating in a physical assault in which I was "pantsed." My cool shiny "disco pants" that were given to me by my brother and fit a bit too tight for me were literally ripped off me by kids I so badly wanted acceptance from. They laughed as they tore them to shreds, stripping me down to my "tightie whities" and thrown into a busy street. It was humiliating and traumatizing. I will never forget it. To this day I can't go to the spot where it occurred. I remember the faces and derisive laughs of my bullies like a scene from a movie that plays over and over in my mind.
I was ashamed. Ashamed I did not stand up to the bullies. Ashamed that I was everything my mom had told me. Fat and stupid. I told no one. Not my father who was my sense of security. Not my two brothers. Boys don't talk about body shame. Boys play sports. Boys fight back. Boys become men. That is what society has drummed into us for over 200 years. I, however, was psychologically predisposed to be quiet and shy. Middle child syndrome as one of three boys. I was not a fighter. Instead, I turned on myself with destructive behaviors. I had to be punished. I was just the person to do it.
Male body image stereotypes are powerful. Men are strong. Men are leaders. Men don't complain about fat days. Men certainly don't stick their fingers down their through and purge their meals. Men don't starve themselves. Yet men are doing it. They are doing it in alarming numbers. Children and teens are more preoccupied about their weight then ever.
According to the NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association), about 800,000 men have suffered from bulimia at some point in their lives. Up to 20 percent of those who are diagnosed with an eating disorder are male. The numbers may be even higher because so many men hide in the shadow of the disorder, suffering in shame and silence. I hid. For 27 years, I told no one. Not my family. Not my girlfriends and wives. Not my closest friends. It was my dirty secret.
It's time to bring male eating disorders into the 21st century. Men need to put an end to this stigma and create a voice to let the world know that we also are affected by these potentially deadly issues. It's not an easy thing to do. The biggest barrier is fighting through the shame. It did not happen overnight for me. It took 27 years before I even told my family. It started with one small step forward, by dropping that wall of self-loathing for one brief second to allow myself to trust someone. Then another small step. Then another. Since then, some steps have been larger, and there have been some steps backward. Recovery is a process of gains and losses. The key to working through the setbacks for me was to realize that it's okay to feel shame now and then. It's human. It's how we process it that makes all the difference.
Men can also be affected by the Internet-driven, hot bod image explosion that tells us we simply don't measure up to these perfect, airbrushed images. There is no shame in speaking up. There is only more awareness and recovery. It just takes one small step forward. Let's take it now.