“It must be nice to eat anything you want and not gain any weight.”
“Yeah, but you’re lucky. You’re skinny.”
Why do I feel like I’m about to collapse, to rip apart at the seams (that I’ve so dutifully sewn)? What’s wrong with me? Maybe it’s diabetes. People in my family have had it, so there’s the hereditary link. I read the symptoms online; they seem to confirm my hypothesis. Well wait, could it be psychosomatic now? Eh, let’s just go with diabetes. But maybe I better check with a doctor so I can get things in order…I hear doctors know stuff. Here’s what I know: with diabetes, I’ll have to watch what I eat even more. I’ll have to work out more purposefully. I hear that exercise helps balance blood sugar. Good thing I’ve already cut out sugar as much as I can from my diet. It’s like I’ve been preparing myself for diabetes. This is great! Okay, let’s go exercise…
Why do I still feel like I’m about to collapse? Did I not exercise enough? Did I eat too much? Maybe I need to eat more…but definitely not too much more. Or I could eat more and then just double up on workouts today. I worked my legs pretty hard this morning, but my arms should be okay.
Nothing wrong with this thinking, right? After all, it’s healthy to be mindful of what you eat, isn’t it? It’s healthy to exercise, and even healthier to do it with greater frequency and intensity, right? And if something goes wrong, surely it’s because I’m falling short on one of these healthy habits?
Welcome to the world of a Male Eating Disorder, which I did in fact confuse with some sort of MED, a remedy that promises health and happiness. Pardon my flippancy, but I have to reflect with a certain measure of amusement to help me account for the absurd journey I threw myself into. And I do have to qualify things with gender given our culture’s norms and assumptions. They undoubtedly contributed to my blindness in recognizing an eating disorder as something that could be my problem, and I’m writing this primarily because I assume others are equally blind. We know what’s possible by what we sense, by the information in our environment, and if we never see or hear about men going through eating disorders, well then they must really be a woman’s problem, right?
Origin stories compel us. They underscore the wondrous power of our imaginations, how we can float through nothing but noise and piece together something that not only makes sense but is in fact harmonious and beautiful (even if the web it weaves is negative). We can look back on the mess of moments that is our past and pull out the memories that help us construct a home to which we can always return for comfort. We do this as a matter of habit, but we are especially invested in this construction when we’re lost and confused, in need of an anchor. Is it tragic, absurd, or just plain necessary that we forget how responsible we are for building and dropping the anchors that ground (and halt) our lives?
Here was the problem: obsessive eating and exercising. How to account for it? Initially, no clue. But immediately after such a shrug, my mind gets to work. When did I go from eating anything without a thought to reading nutrition labels (for food that I wasn’t even going to eat) with masochistic fervor? When did I go from playing sports for fun to ripping through every Beachbody program because…I had to?
My mind summons the following vague memory and gives it life: coming back from a semester abroad in Italy, I was eager to return to my high jumping career at Boston College. At the same time, my father was adjusting his lifestyle: doctor’s orders. Here was a man (whom I revered, of course, being a dutiful son in a patriarchal culture) who also never thought about what he ate, exercised passionately (especially playing basketball), and could generally do no wrong. And it turns out that he had indeed done wrong, for now he had to…go on a diet. What? Why? Should I rethink my eating and living habits too?
Yep. I am claiming that my mind’s logic is not only isolating this time as the initiation of my eating disorder but is isolating the twisted idea of changing my life as my father changed his as the driving logical force. Why would I choose this as the foundation of it all? Does it somehow justify the behaviors that followed? Well, I was just being like my dad, so how can that be wrong? Besides, he was listening to a doctor, so really, I’m vicariously following sound medical advice.
Identity formation is a tricky thing. We want so desperately to find stability in this world, given how wobbly it feels (and is) and how off-center we always feel (and are). This is, of course, a huge problem for our egos, which are ever urging us toward centrality, toward primacy, toward the world privileging our narrative as paramount. We want to know that we matter, not just know that we are matter. So you can try and remind me about perspective all you want, bringing into focus the relativity that should reveal what really matters. But what really matters is what we experience, and although I’m certainly responsible, to some extent, for what I experience, I can’t reduce what I feel and how I act and then balance it against more real problems. That acrobatic act only leads to everything falling apart.
My identity? Most relevant to this story: athlete. That’s the home I built for myself, or perhaps the home that others built for me. Either way, I lived in it. What did I owe to keep this house?
I’m not going to scapegoat the media as the source of my body ideal, but I can’t avoid acknowledging its pervasive role in shaping how we all perceive normalcy (and so what is “natural” and “right”). The media, which tells us the stories about who we are and who we can become, establishes social order. Given little else to worry about but my body (thanks to gender and racial privilege), I devoted all my energy to that concern.
Because of this obsession with keeping my identity safe and sacred (for how else would I know who I am?), I was consumed by two questions: What am I going to eat next? When am I going to work out again? These two parasites worked together too, where whatever I was thinking about eating next was informed by what I would do to work it off and where whatever I was going to do next as a workout would set the boundaries for what I would give myself permission to eat. I’m 6’2” and during this maniacal period, I vacillated between 140 and 155 pounds. Even at 155 pounds, I’m underweight. Yet I was cripplingly anxious about what I would give myself permission to eat and equally worried about doing enough to work it off and maintain my body. But that’s wrong. It wasn’t to maintain the reality of my body. I honestly have no clue what that even was. (Looking in a mirror was more a glimpse into my crippled psyche than at objective reality.) It was to maintain the vague (and therefore unattainable) image of my body that I held as my idol. My body, as they say, was a temple, and I sacrificed myself at its altar in every moment.
Whatever self I was striving for then never had a chance to breathe. Because as soon as the moment came where I could become, I let that self die while I buggered off into meaningless transcendence, thinking that my faith was fruitful. Never actually in the body that I cared so much about and never able to see how far I really was from my self (the self in any given moment), I embodied…nothing. Sadly, this wasn’t the enlightened detachment from things and bodies that brings peace. I was tied down by things and bodies that would never be. How is it possible for something never-to-be to be so heavy?
We’ve come to the part of the story that should satisfy us for the night, that should allow us to wake up tomorrow ready to live. In other words, the sentimental part where we resolve things and hopefully achieve catharsis. I hope that my meta-move here hasn’t ruined what’s to come, but it’s the way I’ve decided to prepare this meal, and I have to be confident in its nutritional value. I hope it not only fills you but fulfills you.
I’m not over body image issues. I learned about an eating disorder called orthorexia, which described some of my obsessive impulses. That helped, knowing I wasn’t alone in my pathology. But it hasn’t altered my behaviors entirely. My beliefs have changed, and I trust that I’m evaluating my body and my mind more clearly. I hope I’m doing so with self-compassion.
There is some reassuring evidence that I am. When I perform body-checks now (still an unfortunately regular occurrence) or simply flex my abs, feeling that they’re still there – almost as if to check that I’m still there, the Lou who’s valued and validated by other people and society – I’m able to laugh at myself. Not as a disappointed judge, but as a curious observer witnessing absurd activity. I can say to myself, “there goes Lou again securing his masculinity.” So much of it – this struggle – has had to do with simulating that socially constructed phenomenon. Man is nothing without a six-pack. Being aware of this social pressure as a motivating force has incrementally mitigated the issue. I don’t expect I’ll have surmounted it for a long time. Unfortunately, the information I receive everywhere in our culture serves as a Siren to old habits; the messages are clear, ubiquitous, and relentless. They’re parasitic. If I want to fit in, I have to be fit. And it has to be a certain kind of fit, defined by an ever elusive set of criteria for both diet and exercise. Forget healthy, think sexy. Except that you’ll lose both as you strive for the latter.
As you can tell by the highly intellectualized tone of this piece, I’m moving pretty slowly forward on this journey. I’m not sure how to tap into the emotional energy of nearly a decade of experience. This piece, by Emily V. Gordon, inspired me to at least share this part of the story. I started writing it over a year ago, and then I let it sit on my Google Drive. I imagine I was ashamed to post it. Perhaps I’ve grown enough in self-love not to experience such anxiety and guilt anymore about it.
Self-conscious, insecure men do exist. The self I’m now conscious of has less concern for the silly identity markers that generate and sustain insecurity, that are created to consume and be consumed by an aggressively oppressive global marketplace. If that sounds like a hyperbolic description of our current state of affairs, you might be lying to yourself about your place in the system, or your control over yourself within it. We are all individuals nested in an economic, political reality dominated by a hegemony that thrives when we experience lack. It makes us internalize beliefs that we aren’t good enough and then perform roles that can never fully alleviate those beliefs. It’s an entropic reality that turns us quickly into husks. How might we turn this destructive energy sink into a creative energy force? How might we stop caring about what we eat, especially when our body’s image – not its reality – is at stake, and start caring about how and why we’re being eaten?
Note: I originally titled this “Confessions of a Male Eating Disorder” and then I felt it was too direct, or maybe even unfair. Why do I have to confess instead of simply testify? It’s no crime. It’s an experience. We might do well to remember that.