Comment & Analysis
Nov 15, 2017

Men Experience Eating Disorders Too. Let’s Not Silence Them

We need to ensure men are able to discuss their eating disorders too, writes Shane Kenneally.

Shane KenneallyDeputy Opinion Editor

I find food difficult. For much of my life, food has been something I wished I did not need. For whatever reasons – be they genetic, misfortune or that I knew where Mum kept the sweets – I was objectively an overweight child. I was fat. To be fat at such an age, when all children seem lean and full of a boundless energy to run off even the largest slice of caterpillar cake, is to feel ostracised. It is to feel different. And, over a decade later, I still feel different.

I was around eight years old when I first thought to myself that my body was not right. My stomach jutted out and my cheeks formed half moons on a face that one could best compare to that of a cherub. I was large, awkward and hated, but only by me. Bullying was negligible and I refuse to attribute years of neurosis and resentment to the words of little boys in swimming pools, who compared me to seals, or coaches on rugby pitches who thought of me as one of the “fat boys” and made me play prop. I firmly believe this is my own doing and I am left with a never-ending fear that one day I may return to a version of my own self I barely recall, yet dread to revisit.

It is my mind that tells me it could all come back, that had me weigh myself eight times a day, that told me not to drink water in case I bloat and that suggested it would be best to get it all back up before it turns to fat. And it is my mind that will not let go of a part of me that, for years, has ceased to exist.

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So why am I telling you this? I’ve decided to talk about it because often it’s something I felt I shouldn’t – let me re-iterate, shouldn’t, not couldn’t – feel

Now at the age of 20 I do, to a certain extent, see reason. I see reality in its changeable contexts: what is overweight, what is underweight, what’s in my head and what isn’t. Yet all the same I am prone to ignoring reason. I am perfectly capable of thinking that “it’s just a trick of the light that makes me seem thin”, and I’m more than prepared to convince myself that my chins have multiplied. There are times when I hate what I see, or to be more accurate, what I fool myself into seeing.

I wear my t-shirts extra small to prove to myself that I can, then panic if I notice they reveal a post-lunch bulge. I obsess over the gym and can have my day ruined quite easily if I’m forced to cancel. I walk by a mirror and, if I’m alone, I’ll always lift up my top to inspect – to pinch and prod away at the skin that I am convinced is fat. I’ve mapped every inch of my imperfections this way.

As a child, this obsession made me wear baggy hoodies in the July heat and spit chewed food back into napkins, thinking all the while that it was the flavour minus the guilt. As an adult, it can turn casual pints or post-Workmans McDonald’s into episodes of stress, anxiety and shame. It means getting sick in the sink at Halls and trying to tell yourself it’s a once-off and that it won’t happen again, until a Domino’s discount forces two fingers into what’s left of your integrity, and there you are again, a little older but, in your head, fatter.

So why am I telling you this? I’ve decided to talk about it because often it’s something I felt I shouldn’t – let me re-iterate, shouldn’t, not couldn’t – feel. Because eating disorders are often viewed as being “for girls”. Men are rarely considered, and when they are, it is often only when their weight falls to life-threatening lows. It’s not seen as an issue. If anything, it seems that it’s seen as a weakness.

I’ve had friends tease or roll their eyes when I’ve ordered salads in Eddie Rockets. Other times, I’ve been stared at for saying I don’t like beer

I’ve had friends tease or roll their eyes when I’ve ordered salads in Eddie Rockets. Other times, I’ve been stared at for saying I don’t like beer, and then told I drink “bitch drinks” for ordering what I hope won’t result in me spending the night wondering if I look fat. I gave up pasta and bread in sixth year and was told daily that it was stupid and that I was looking for attention. I was asked repeatedly why I was on a diet, a word which, remember, is only “for girls”. Worse still, I was told eating this way would “never get me any muscles”. Skinny is for the girls, while being ripped is for the lads.

It can often feel that if you are a man and you struggle with your weight, with your food and with your perceptions of yourself, then you have two options. One, you can embrace it and call it a “dad bod”, then jokingly call yourself fat and laugh it off. Or two, you hit the gym, the pitch, the protein and bulk up. But what if you can’t do either? What if embracing it is the furthest thing from your mind and no amount of hard work or sweat seems good enough?

That is what it can feel like to be stuck with a certain body image or an eating disorder – that there is no room for understanding of those who can’t look in the mirror and be happy with what they see and what they are. I know I’m not fat. I haven’t been for years, but I’ve no doubt that I’ll forever live with the fear that it could return. The impulse to watch portions and the obsession to calorie count is unavoidable. I am a man who finds burgers terrifying, who thinks having a Guinness is the equivalent of swallowing a stick of butter and who wishes that it wasn’t considered weird to enjoy a quinoa salad for lunch.

I have done something I’ve yet to do before. I have just spoken openly about my weight, my fears and my relationship with food and, by extension, myself. I wasn’t sure if it was right or if this was an issue or difficulty that I could claim as my own, partly as it has yet to seriously damage my physical health, but also because I felt it was something which I, as a man, was not meant to have. With any eating disorder, the idea of there being an “end” seems bizarre. There is no off switch for the internal monologue of doubt, only the will to make that voice grow quieter. I wrote this piece because I feel the best way to drown out voices and thoughts you do not wish to hear is to speak your own words louder, share the pain and hope that it might allow those who also endure this to join the conversation and help muffle the tyranny of compulsions within.

I hope I can love food again. I hope I can enjoy myself and indulge now and then without swearing I’ll go to the gym for hours or contemplating vomiting into the nearest toilet. I also hope that if I find this hard to do, and if I falter along the way, that it won’t be seen as unusual, that it will not be dismissed and that it will be understood.

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