The first time I ever heard the term ‘eating disorder’ I was around the age of eleven. I’d dived into one of my mother’s magazines and in the middle of it, taking up a whole double-page spread, was an article accompanied by upsetting images of emaciated girls with folded hands and hollow-looking eyes. I didn’t know what anorexia or bulimia was at that point; all I knew was those girls looked hungry and sad and bony. After chewing on the information for a while I took away two things from the article 1) Eating disorders only affect girls and 2) I didn’t want to catch anorexia – because it was a disease, right? Nobody bothered to explain to me at the time that you didn’t just become bulimic or anorexic overnight; and thus, I added getting an eating disorder to my ever-growing shelf of childish-fears, sitting it neatly between a smallpox outbreak and having to do ‘show and tell’ in front of my primary school class.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that article had planted a seed that would over the years bloat into a glutinous paranoia about my own weight. The first time I weighed myself I wasn’t yet a teenager. Some pre-pubescent urge to check what I weighed crept in one day and after that I began to weigh myself often. Until that point I had grown up severely hating the scale, because I equated the scales with visiting the GP, and I hated that idea because I was worried he’d announce that there had been a smallpox outbreak. My mum kept this faded-yellowing battery-operated relic from the eighties underneath her bed and it sort just lived there until I exhumed it. Once a week I’d go to her room, kick my shoes off and grow impatient at the ten-second lag it took for the numbers to appear. That was the first step down the very slippery slope that lead directly to my eating disorder.
Recently I watched a documentary on BBC 3 called Queer Britain and it raised the issue of body dysmorphia amongst men, gay men in particular. It really clawed away at me and dug up a lot of old feelings. It really hammered home that despite eating disorders becoming increasingly common amongst gay men, we parade around the idea of a ‘perfect’ body despite how toxic a notion it is. I’ve wobbled between both sides of the judgemental seesaw at various points. I’ve been mocked for being too thin, and was made to feel like less of a man for because my frame looked feminine. When I was at my biggest, I had nasty comments made about my body; remarks that clung to the layer of stubborn belly fat I was carrying around and really weighed me down. The first set of comments made me feel less masculine and as though being a feminine guy was a bad thing. The second tipped the scales and imbued me with a potent sense of self-loathing that made feel as though I had the sexual allure of a warthog.
I have ridden the yo-yo diet for years. On one end I was ramming my fingers down my throat in order to lose the weight faster; and the other saw the lower half of my body stretched out under running water whilst the upper half was slung over the side of the bath eating a loaf of bread. I’ve had months that were an orgy of takeaways and multipacks of crisps; eating that fifth slice of pizza that was both unwanted and unneeded, using grief management as my excuse. During that time I didn’t think about my weight very much at all – the only time I would get on a scale was at the doctors, and even then I’d have to be offered a lollipop as compensation. Then the other period ushered in, a period where despite being 10lbs underweight I still saw Jabba the Hutt belly-dancing back at me any time I looked in a mirror. Months of depriving myself of food and making myself sick followed and would see me lying on the bathroom floor, my face puffy and my stomach aching.
Bulimia, anorexia – any eating disorder – are lonely diseases. They are lonelier still for the guys that suffer from them. The pressure and prejudice we have about body image in the gay community is toxic. The irony of having shady comments thrown at you by a community that is formed on a solid foundation of inclusion and acceptance has not been lost on me. We femme shame all the time whilst simultaneously not replying to the bigger guy that messaged us on Grindr. It’s rock-hard abs and rippling pectorals or nothing – both on our partner, and on ourselves. This ‘perfect’ image gay men hunt is so damaging yet we don’t see it. I used to think that if I ate some broccoli and did some crunches then my abs would turn up with an army of potential suiters behind them, but you can’t just pull the ‘perfect’ body out of thin air – because it doesn’t exist. I’ll spare you a serving of cliché and thus won’t say that you’re perfect the way you are, because you aren’t. Neither am I, neither is your ex, neither is your GBF. Perfect is a mirage; it’s something we run towards but never reach because it isn’t there (okay, that was a cliché.)
Even now I still struggle with how I look, but to combat that I do things that make me feel better. I’ve been hitting the gym pretty hard lately. So much so that it’s bordering on the realms obsessive; seriously, I can feel my OCD forming an emotional attachment to the treadmill. I do it because it makes me feel better; it gives me confidence in a body that I hated for so long. To the point where I can now comfortably post topless pictures online (even then I’m greeted with a flurry of ‘thirst trap’ comments. Seriously, you can’t win if you’re playing the game to get the approval of others.)
We need to stop setting our standards so high. You could be pretty IF. You would look beautiful WHEN. Your body would look amazing AFTER. We need to stop being so judgmental about the looks of our LGBT brothers and sisters. Most of all, we need to realise that eating disorders can ruin the lives of men and woman and we need to support those who struggle with one.