Eating Disorders Are Rampant in Gay Men and These Are 5 Things We Can Do to Help

10/22/2015 01:40 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2016

When I came out of the closet at the age of 20, my body had already been through a lot.

In middle school, I was teased for having a "girl's body." Not only was I overweight, but also, I was biracial. The result was a body type that was easy fodder for my classmates: My ass was huge. My chest was swollen into "man boobs." My face was round and full.

I learned to be ashamed of every step I took, to apologize for taking up space, to flinch whenever someone looked at me for too long.

Eventually, I got sick of being made fun of. I made the radical decision to starve myself.

If I ate too much, I threw it up. If I skipped a day of exercise, I punished myself twice as much the next day. If my body ached, if it was in pain, if it was begging for nourishment, I didn't care -- I wanted to look "normal."

In all, I shed over 100 pounds.

But it didn't matter. I was still trapped in my body.

We celebrate "coming out" as an act of personal liberation. And when I finally did, it's true, a lot of things got better for me.

My eating disorder was not one of them.

When I came out, my mental health was fragile. I was dysmorphic, bulimic and eager to seek out validation for a body I had been conditioned to hate.

But validation wasn't what I found. Instead, I found an environment where my body was even more inadequate than I had previously imagined.

I found a community full of damaged people like myself, people who, like me, were torturing themselves to conform to a very rigid definition of beauty. I found a community where only a select few body types were considered to be ideal.

I found a community that was sick like me.

Gay and bisexual men are 7 times more likely to binge and 12 times more likely to purge than heterosexual men. Despite making up 5 percent of the male population, some 42 percent of men with eating disorders are gay.

It's clear we have a problem.

Here are five ways we can help.

1. Diversify the representation of bodies in gay media.

When we open up the gay male standard of beauty, we take a positive step for our community's mental health.

How often do we need to see the same white, chiseled body upheld as the paragon of attractiveness? Why, when our community has so much diversity to pull from?

Not only is this lazy, but in a community with such staggeringly high rates of eating disorders, it's also irresponsible.

Gay media should be taking the lead on this. Instead of heaping praise on just one kind of body, why not put a spotlight on people of different body types and ethnicities?

No matter your race, no matter what kind of body you have and even if you fit the profile of the Adonis that is typically featured in our media, affirming different kinds of beauty will take some pressure off all gay men trying to change themselves to look "sexy."

It's such a simple step, but we're doing a terrible job at taking it.

2. Make mental health a priority in the gay community.

I'm proud of how the gay community is championing issues like HIV/AIDS awareness and challenging the stigmas associated with it.

But we need more campaigns tackling mental health in the gay community.

Beyond body image issues, gay men are also much more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Many suffer from PTSD and substance abuse.

We should be doing everything we can to tackle the mental health crisis that has plagued our community.

Body dysmorphia, eating disorders and bulimia are all issues that therapy can assist in treating. In my experience, group therapy can be especially effective. We need to be pushing for mental healthcare access for LGBT people and pushing for more gay men to seek treatment.

3. Normalize getting treatment for mental illnesses.

The above being said, there remains a stigma for people across all demographics in seeking mental healthcare.

And yet, one of my favorite things about being a part of the gay community is how we, when we put our minds to it, reject societal stigma and find empowerment. This is the essence of Pride.

So what we need to do, then, is be leaders on this issue.

Normalize seeing a therapist. Normalize talking about mental illness. Normalize getting help.

4. Tackle internalized homophobia.

Toxic masculinity plays a huge role in keeping men, both gay and straight, from admitting they have an eating disorder.

Many gay men are afraid of being associated with femininity for doing so, or they still believe mental illnesses aren't real and that they should just suck it up.

This creates a perfect storm for gay men suffering from eating disorders: the male gaze puts the pressure on them to look a certain way, but masculinity dictates that they not seek help.

What we can all do to tackle this problem is deconstruct the rigid concept of masculinity and the internalized homophobia that stigmatizes eating disorders as "effeminate" and that perceives femininity as a weakness.

5. Validate each other.

This is probably the simplest thing we can do for each other.

I love being gay. I love being in the gay community. It has given me some of the most amazing friends and experiences of my life. But we can do better in validating each other.

It seems like we are quick to dismiss gay men we see as unattractive, quick to write people off if they don't look a certain way, quick to judge someone on their appearances.

What we should be doing is creating an environment where people can be attractive in different ways. We should be building each other up, celebrating our differences and taking a critical eye to some of the attributes we hold to be positive -- gaunt features, bulging muscles, etc.

None of this is a critique on the men we do celebrate. More power to them.

All I'm saying is, gay men, we have a challenge facing our community.

Let's start working on solutions.

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