What’s Eating You?

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Anorexia. Bulimia. Self-induced starvation. Extreme dieting. Binge eating. Self-induced vomiting. When reading these words and phrases, most people think of an adolescent high school girl or the girls in the college sorority houses in West Campus. Maybe the female models we see featured in various media stories come to mind. According to the Academy for Eating Disorders, at any given time 10% or more of late adolescent or adult women struggle with symptoms of eating disorders. No question, this is a serious and growing problem facing many females today.

But eating disorders and body image issues are not just a female problem. Several years ago, a Harvard University study found that 25% of all anorexics and bulimics and 40% of all binge eaters are male, with some researchers believing that the rate of male anorexia and bulimia is closer to 30% of all cases. The belief that eating disorders are only a female problem is a myth.

Another myth associated with eating disorders is that they are all about food and body image. Yes, on the surface, food and body image are the presenting issues, but beneath the starvation and bingeing and purging and excessive exercising rages a violent storm of self-defeating thoughts and overwhelming negative feelings that rip and tear at the fabric of one’s sense of self. And these odd behaviors around food are simply an attempt to manage these thoughts and feelings. What is going on psychologically is projected onto the food and the body so that the food and eating, or lack thereof, are used to help cope with what is causing the individual so much emotional pain. Eating disorders are less about food and one’s body image and more about one’s low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy.

Who is at risk for developing these debilitating disorders? Research shows that there is a genetic component to eating disorders. So, like many other mental health issues, if someone in your family has had an eating disorder, then it is in your gene pool and you may be at risk.

Athletes in sports that necessitate weight restriction (e.g., running, swimming, rowing, wrestling) or that are “antigravitational” (e.g., rock climbing, pole vaulting) are at a high risk, too.

Guys who were overweight as children and adolescents and teased by their peers because of their weight are also at risk for developing disordered eating. Research shows that of all eating-disordered males, 50% were overweight when they were youngsters and were teased because of how their bod- ies looked. These guys carry the heavy feeling of shame with them into adulthood and try to lose this heaviness by losing the weight.

And the group at highest risk? Gay and bisexual males. According to a 2007 study, more than 15% of gay and bisex- ual men have struggled with disordered eating problems. The visually obsessed culture that dominates the gay male experience tends to cultivate eating disorders. I recently visited with Dr. Ben Locke about the increase in the number of eating disorders in college-age gay males. Locke, who is the assistant director of the Center for

Counseling and Psychological Services at Penn State University, summed it up best: “If you are attracted to men, then you are at a higher risk for developing an eating disorder.”

Although eating disorders know no particular season, two times of the year seem particularly difficult for those who struggle with body image and eating issues. The holidays, with all of the high-calorie foods and stressful family time, can wreak havoc on someone who struggles with eating issues and a poor body image. I often refer to the holiday season as the “mean season” for eating disorders. And the second season? We’re in it–summer!

The summer can be just as mean for some. This time of year provides all kinds of sightseeing with plenty of exposed skin to view at the lake or along the hike-and-bike trails. All this near nakedness can cause a guy to go into massive compari- son mode, thinking that in order to be accepted, desired, and wanted, then his body must be as lean and toned as possible– or at least as good-looking as the body of the guy who caught his boyfriend’s eye. In fact, it is not uncommon for a gay man to develop an eating disorder to actually improve his relationship with his partner.

What are some warning signs that you or someone you know may be developing an eating disorder? Ask yourself or him the following questions:

Do you chronically worry about your weight or body shape?

Do you obsess about the number of calories or fat grams in the foods you just ate?

Do you feel anxious or guilty when you eat certain foods or avoid so-called “bad” foods altogether?

Do you weigh yourself or body-check multiple times a day?

Do you feel anxious or guilty when you skip a workout/ exercise day?

The gay culture places a tremendous amount of importance on the body. Several years ago I had a conversation with Travis Mathews, the San Francisco-based director of Do I Look Fat, a documentary on eating disorders in the gay community that has screened around the globe, in which he described the gay male body as “currency.” Mathews’ metaphor is spot on. Currency (think money) brings status, power and prestige. And who would disagree that the same cannot be said for the male body in the gay world? Working out, eating healthy, staying fit and wanting to look good are not bad endeavors. Quite the opposite– they are signs of good mental health. Things get out of balance and way off track, however, when other aspects of your life– relationships, work, school–take a back seat to the gym and when the bulk of your identity and self-worth are based solely on your body. So ask yourself, how much “currency” is enough?

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