Two years ago, I walked into what I believed would be a typical lecture for my nutrition class. As the lecture went on, the professor came to a few slides on a topic I had, until that day, never really thought too much about — eating disorders. I left that lecture with an uneasy feeling in my stomach — something akin to realizing you have been doing something incorrectly for years. For the first time in my life, I had come face to face with a reality of my daily existence, and my brain was left swimming in a volatile mixture of disbelief, a heavy dose of shame and a liberal sprinkling of fear.
Looking back, the signs of my struggles with eating disorder behaviors and my body image were there — subtle and secretive, but there. The sit-ups in bed after looking disapprovingly at my stomach, the self-imposed fasts and the feelings of failure and guilt with each trip to the scale in the bathroom. That day in nutrition class was the beginning of my journey through months of unhealthy rationalization, multiple online screening tests, confiding in a caring friend and, ultimately, months of counseling at University Counseling Services. Slowly but surely, my unhealthy thoughts became less pervasive and my behaviors less destructive. Today, I no longer receive counseling and am in recovery. My challenges aren’t over, and the whispers of guilt and negativity still grow to shouts from time to time, but life is no longer dictated by what I see in the mirror or how many calories I consume.
Ultimately, I was lucky. I did not completely disregard the evidence of my unhealthy behaviors, and the few people I confided in along the way showed me care and support. I fear others will not be so fortunate. The downward spiral of self-doubt, body shame and eating disorder behaviors can be swift and unrelenting, especially when society tells you your anxiety is self chosen, your behaviors are normal and your pain is not real. It’s especially tough when you’re a man.
Eating disorders, body image issues and unrealistic body standards largely still are presented as women’s concerns — uncharted waters for the smooth-sailing ship that is masculinity. This stereotype is perpetuated by even the most well-meaning organizations and campaigns. A sorority’s campaign shirts for eating disorder awareness week a couple years ago proudly proclaimed that “beauty comes in every size,” and in doing so, subtlty told us men have no place in the conversation about eating disorders. We celebrate body positive women on the same social media feeds as recently buffed-up celebrities and articles on the virtues of man bods. Our society seems to have no time, energy or space for men who want to be thinner, men who are psychologically broken, or men who are terrified by the number of calories in a slice of pizza. To be a man, one must be strong, self-reliant and ever-confident. To have an eating disorder or body insecurities is decidedly un-manly — to talk about those things is like slapping yourself in the face with your relinquished man-card.
As spring turns into summer, swimsuit season arrives and bro-tanks make an unwelcome return, I implore everyone to welcome the sunshine with a newfound sense of honesty and openness about the realities of the many challenges we can all face to feel comfortable in our own skin. To my fellow insecure men out there — admitting you’re broken will not make you lose your coveted man-card, no matter what your macho bro-friends might try to convince you. To the people out there fighting the good fight for a healthy relationship with food and body image — thank you for what you do, but please acknowledge the similar challenges and struggles of men, too. Eating disorders are indeed more common in women, and yes, media create unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards, but to ignore the similar challenges men face is to look at a burning house and say only some of the burning rooms are worth saving — or worse, to say only some of the rooms are on fire.
I am a man who gets anxious eating a doughnut, still fights unhealthy aspirations to wear pants that are one size smaller and battles the whispers of eating disorder behaviors. That should not sound like a contradiction. Until we collectively change our understanding and conversations about eating disorders, body image and insecurities, many men will continue to struggle in silence. I am finished being silent. It’s time we allow other men to do the same.
Wyatt Beckman is a junior health science major from Ness City, Kan.
This editorial originally appeared in the April 14 issue of the Index on newsstands now.