“But you’re a man?”
Those four words have been the overriding theme in my 12 years trying to live with, and recover from, an eating disorder. Admittedly there are not many areas of society where men are unfairly stigmatised or discriminated against, however eating disorder awareness and treatment seems to be one of the select few.
When we say the words “eating disorders” immediately there is an image of an underweight cisgender, white, young woman. This is how eating disorders have been portrayed by the media and, sadly, most of the research that has been done on eating disorders, their manifestations and treatment methods. The truth is, eating disorders do not discriminate. They affect people of any age, gender, race, sexuality, status, religion, or economic background – sadly, there is no one who is immune from these deadly illnesses.
Being a man who, for much of his time struggling, has not been underweight, has been a struggle to say the least. Right from the outset when I was refused help for not being “sick” enough, through to the crisis team discharging me because “we’ve never had a man before so we don’t really know what to do with you” (yes, it really is a quote).
There are so many misunderstandings related to eating disorders in men. We hear a lot about women sadly losing their periods and having fertility issues, but nothing about men who also rely on hormonal activity to grow, develop and reproduce. I lost my testosterone aged 12 and didn’t get it back properly until I was 16. Four years of development lost at the most important time because no one knew (or bothered to work it out). Now 24, I have never fully developed and may be infertile.
Another constant for me, has been a compulsion, addiction even, to exercise. Between the ages of 15-18 I played semi-professional football, so the obsession was easy to hide. The truth is that an obsession with activity can turn into something very dangerous and deadly. Eating disorders and exercise addiction in sport is something which is being given increasing attention, and sport’s obsession with numbers, “marginal gains” and success at all cost has perhaps helped us all lose our way as to what activity should be about – enjoyment, and love for our bodies and minds. I see it as a true addiction, very much all-or-nothing. If I start being active again, the enjoyment comes back, but so do the compulsions. Activity levels creep up, and up some more. My nutritional intake doesn’t catch up. Eventually a crisis point comes where I either have to stop or I’ll end up hospitalised and so the cycle starts again. There is some research going on in this area, such as REDS (Relative energy Deficiency in Sports), but much more is needed to be done to realise the true impact.
But there are some positive signs. We have campaigns, like Hope Virgo’s Dump The Scales, which are gaining Parliamentary support, and aim to change how we categorise, treat and work with those who are struggling. Progress is painfully slow, but I have the hope and the faith that change will come. Anyone of any body size who feels their thoughts, feelings or behaviours around food or activity is impacting their quality of life deserves support. With 20% of women and nearly as many men now showing clinical signs of eating disorders, this is now a national public health emergency.
Health is just so much more than someone’s body size.
Adam Fare is a 24-year-old Eating Disorders Awareness Campaigner, Wellbeing Lead and Data Analyst who has had an eating disorder since the age of 12.