As we approach National Coming Out Day on October 11, it’s fitting to dedicate this column to the topic of eating disorders andbody image dissatisfaction, with a focus on gay men. According to a study NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) published in 2017, the occurrence of eating disorders is three times higher in gay men than in straight men, and nearly 15% of all gay men report dealing with anorexia or bulimia during their lifetime.
For many years, the national conversation about eating disorders and negative body image was focused on women and girls, however, in the last few years, it has become clear that gay men are affected more and more. Body-hate, rigidly seeing yourself as only ‘you see you,’ and body-shaming are some examples of the serious manifestations of poor body image that can lead to a serious eating disorder.
Eating disorders endanger lives every day. There are many ways to control eating, including what you eat, how you eat (alone or in front of others), how food is prepared, times of day that you eat, and not eating. The ‘not eating’ way to control the uncontrollable can be a last effort or a first act, depending upon the individual.
This isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse, especially in our community. I’ve worked with individuals of all ages who have had an eating disorder over the years, i.e. anorexia or bulimia to simplify, and all areas in between, as well as people with disordered eating strategies. A full-blown eating disorder is one of the most difficult areas to help, in part because the fight is with multiple aspects of that person’s past, present, and hope for the future.
That loss or disbelief in HOPE is a major key, because hope points forward, to living, to smiling, to breathing. The complicated ‘picture’ of that individual must be regarded and the various parts are very often moving. No self-help initiatives alone will be adequate; this is a situation requiring assistance from a medical and mental health team who are well-versed in issues of negative body image, eating disorders, and clinical depression.
There are non-medical and hope-based ways in which we can supplement treatment. One way to frame the issue is about loss. When you negate how you feel, what you believe, or how you rigidly perceive how you are regarded by others, you are losing yourself, the very special and unique individual you are.
The continuous reaching for perfection and ‘sameness’ if you compare yourself to others, or even invisibility due to your own self-hate for your body, can be very isolating and may exacerbate one or more of the things most feared – loneliness, non-acceptance, and ridicule by those you yearn to accept you. The situation is traumatic for many and should be regarded as such.
Saying all that, there remains a very personal, rigidly planted view of self, of your own imperfect body with all of its parts, that is negative, despised, and ultimately has the power to prevent a better and more satisfying life.
That powerful ‘grab’ as I call it, can be buffered away perhaps, but for most, the self-deprecation carried for many years coupled with the body-shaming renders it nearly impossible. There is inner trauma around the negativity about something that often cannot be changed, and when bullied, embarrassed, or made fun of, it becomes more traumatic. And that trauma over time can increase.
Another reason I frame serious body-image issues and eating disorders around loss is that through that negative self-perception, a space is created, a dark space between reality and our perception. Perceptions are what we see, what we believe to be our truth, and as you know, when a perception is set, it’s very difficult to alter. When the perception is unrealistic or untrue, we face the conundrum of helping someone who has a fixed but erroneous perception of himself or herself. You might ask, how can my perception be wrong? Easy – the negativity and hate that have been planted and now grows in your heart are just that, planted deeply.
Like an old and trusted tree that gives shade, roots go very deep, and often defy movement. And it can often be that way with negative body image, and usually, that past and long-lasting negativity has permeated the self-esteem and confidence that you can achieve. And let’s not forget the habit and comfort of thinking you are imperfect. Hurtful or not, if we feel and believe something long and deeply enough, there is a tendency to make it our truth, and often not accept anything that contradicts it, not because it’s not wanted, but because we cannot see it to even consider it.
There are emotional buttons or triggers for all of us, and for those who are plagued with negative body-image issues, the microaggressions in everyday life can be harmful. Fat shaming, teasing, taunting, pointed jokes, condescending looks by an individual or group, or little offhand comments ‘meaning no harm’ are but a few examples.
Or just comments that are derogatory about a body, a disability, a way in which a person presents. Pretty often, something on TV, social media, or even a magazine can include comments that are shaming in nature, predominantly about physical characteristics, not to mention the ‘six-pack’ persona to try to emulate for many gay men.
These are stressful events, and the intention is not important. I say that because it is a bit like standing next to a car, saying goodbye to the driver who is a friend, and they run over your toe, unintentionally. Guess what, your toe is broken, and there is pain. At that moment, you aren’t thinking there’s no pain because it was unintentional. It hurts!
Let’s keep in mind that all hurtful comments are not microaggressions, some are aggressive, more blatant and purposeful, and when they are it is most often from someone who is unhappy with his or her own life, own body, and unsure of their own place in their community. And none of those reasons softens the blow, or makes them acceptable; they are all buttons for many, inexcusable, and traumatic.
Since there is no cure for negative body-image or full-blown eating disorders, positive Personal Growth Initiatives can help. These are steps that you can try yourself, or ask for help from a therapist or advisor of some kind. The rationale is that positive personal changes can occur in people as they struggle to deal with very stressful events, even life-long traumatic perceptions, and depression.
Assess your personal areas of strength – we all have them, just some are well-hidden.
Consider new possibilities – spend some time brainstorming about what you’d LIKE to see happen, and what you’d LOVE to see happen, for you.
Consider what may not be the most supportive or healthiest part of your life right now, and see if you can get out of it, stay away from it, or just steel yourself against the negativity.
Give some time to reviewing your life, the good parts especially. When you isolate some of those, make a list and look at it daily, like a kind of SELF-GENERATED meditation.
Seek more meaningful relationships. Meaningful is the important word here. ONE connection can be extremely powerful, and often it is surprising where that connection can come from. The key is to be OPEN and accepting of connection in general, in a non-sexual aspect.
Seek and gather a sense of peace, of spirituality, of mindfulness – however, you think about that concept. This may be the most difficult to conceptualize for yourself, and also in some ways the easiest because only you have the tools to know what YOU crave.
While there may be no cure, the use of kindness, compassion, and acceptance can go a pretty long way in making someone feel accepted and loved. Check your own attitude – are you a person who laughs at others? Are you someone who speaks or writes to shock, get a rise out of folks, or is shy and feels they need to make a splash or joke and target others in order to take attention away from them in their imperfect frame? Honest support of others can be the very best way in which to allow yourself to feel better, more alive, and all-around experience life satisfaction.
If this column has in any way initiated some thoughts or feelings about your own self-care, please act on it in some way. National Coming Out Day 2019 can be your coming out of darkness as well as a celebration of who we are as members of our community. I celebrate all of you.