Eating Disorders: Not Just a
Girl Thing By Drew Walen
I'm 6 feet tall and weigh 250 pounds. I have broad shoulders and a large rib
cage that makes me look like an undersized football lineman. I've been in bars
where a drunk guy wanted to mess with me while I'm sitting down but backed off
quickly when I stood up. There is power in being a big guy, even when that size
has nothing to do with spending countless hours in a gym pumping ungodly amounts
of iron. And there is a terrible amount of shame as well.
That shame dates back to my elementary school days when I began to put on
significant weight on my frame. I look at photos of me and I can't help but see
that I clearly was fat. Not just fat. I was obese.
It didn't matter to me at the time, but it became a serious issue in middle
school as early dating and flirting exploded among my peers. My skinny friends
were already making out with their equally attractive pre-pubescent female
counterparts while I sulked off to the food court at the mall or concession
stand at the local ice rink. I was hauled off by my mother to Weight Watchers at
age 12, and attempted countless diets throughout my teenage years.
I lost weight, then gained it back - plus some. I got wild cheers from family
when I did well, and looks of pity when I failed. All the while I got the
message that there was something seriously wrong with me and that it was morally
imperative to fix it. This yo-yo pattern lasted until my early 30s.
It was at this time I entered graduate school for social work and began to
investigate the social and legal prejudice against those who are obese in our
country. I recognized the terrible cruelty of lower wages for equal job
competency; the disgust engendered by many in the medical community for someone
with fat rolls and male breasts; the media bias of what is an acceptable male
physique, and the walls put up by the health insurance companies to get even
minimal coverage for someone who has a Body Mass Index (BMI) in the obese
I would register as obese. I don't know what my actual body fat percentage is
(though it is high), but there are football players in the NFL that have similar
basic height-weight numbers as I do with less than 10 percent body fat. They
would be denied health insurance, just as I have, based on their BMI. It's an
arbitrary way for health insurance companies to avoid paying for obesity-related
conditions like high blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. But BMI does not
necessarily correlate to these issues, and it is very possible to be big and be
More frightening to me, however, is how image conscious teenage boys are
becoming and the corollary rise in eating disorders in males. Recent studies
suggest that men, once considered to account for one in 10 eating disorder
cases, now make up approximately one in six.
Men are Affected Too
Anorexia Nervosa: Characterized by the drive for extreme
thinness. This is found in boys desperate to avoid the teasing they received as
chubby kids, particularly if they have sensitive personalities. It's also more
common in athletes where weight classes are involved such as wrestling, boxing,
gymnastics and running. And doctors are seeing it more among boys and men trying
to avoid the medical issues of their fathers such as heart disease, diabetes and
high blood pressure.
Bulimia Nervosa: More common, bulimia is characterized as a
food binge followed by a purge, which could include self-induced vomiting, abuse
of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, or excessive exercise. The binge eating is
often a method of self-medication for depressed mood, stress, anxiety, fear or
anger. The drive to meet the accepted male figure stereotype leads to the use of
these purging methods, which in turn become a perpetual and self-destructive
cycle. Binge eating disorder is marked by the same self-medicating response with
food but without the purging behavior, and is even more common among men.
Reverse Anorexia or Body Dysmorphic Disorder: A new phenomenon
which occurs almost exclusively in men; the belief is that one can never be big
enough. This often leads to the abuse of steroids and other enhancement products
both legal and illegal, all in an effort to avoid the deep sense of inadequacy
of one's body.
Personally, I have a history of falling into a trap of starving myself for
weight loss, binging for emotional salvation, exercising like mad to take care
of the binge, then feeling like a big fat loser for not being 'normal'. The
exercise binges have left me with a torn rotator cuff, early arthritis in my
left hip and a bum right knee. When I felt pain in the moment of exercise, I'd
fight through it because I believed it was more important to lose weight and
I got so frustrated with the diet and exercise failures that I looked to an
easier way out. I'd read articles and seen shows about bariatric surgery
(a.k.a., stomach stapling), and decided to binge on food until I put on enough
weight to have my insurance cover the operation. It was then that I reached my
rock bottom. I realized I had an eating disorder and unimaginable issues with
I got help from an eating disorder counselor, have worked with an eating
disorder nutritionist, and spent the past year slowly dropping weight,
normalizing food and exercise, and gaining a great deal of insight into the
origins of my issues. So intrigued by my own recovery, I'm actually training as
an eating disorder and body image psychotherapist.
Truthfully, I don't love my fat, and I don't suspect I ever will. But I've
come to appreciate my assets, my struggle, and the struggle of men around the
country who are dealing with our image-conscious culture.
Andrew Walen is a clinical
social worker at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore,
Maryland. While earning his masters degree from the University of Tennessee, he
was a member of the Eating Disorder Coalition of Tennessee and the Nashville
Psychotherapeutic Institute. He has lectured to middle and high school students
on eating disorders, body image and self-esteem throughout Middle Tennessee. He
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.