When I was chubby Polish kid growing up in Chicago, my parents would take us on vacations to Canada, which has a large Polish community. We always ate well on these trips and by the time I was in fourth grade, I realized that if there was one thing that could “save” me from my vast confusing waves of emotions—who am I and why is everybody in my family screaming at each other?—it was food.
That was decades ago, but the pattern of behavior I learned back then—to protect my inner world, whatever the cost (so young, so fierce I was)—has played itself out quite wildly in my life. Especially this month, no doubt the result of having dived into reading more books on the subject of eating disorders and body image disorders. I found a gem recently, dubbed, “It’s Not About the Food.” Bestselling author Geneen Roth talks about this, too, in her many workshops and book signings. “… Food” was written by Carol Emery Normandi and Laurelee Roark Founders of Beyond Hunger, Inc., a great organization in the San Francisco Bay Area.
So, there I was … minding my own business when, on page 40 or 52, or 47, or somewhere around there, I got in touch with something pure …
and original …
and real …
As in … the me I may have been avoiding. OK—the me I was avoiding. Like … the Deep Down There Me. (Take a look, you have one, too.)
I was fascinated by something I was reading: That an individual’s body image disorder and/or their eating disorder … is attempting to communicate something to them, about themselves, from deep within; as in … it exists as an alert to something greater, or some greater knowledge about themselves. Could it be that the disorder is communicating to the individual that it’s very presence has been the only way they know how to take care of themselves—binge-eating, restricting food, shaming, self-criticism, etc.?
I finished reading the chapter, set the book down and sighed. Deeply.
What was I trying to tell myself through all my food binges over the years; now even? What was I attempting to communicate to myself by restricting foods and all that yo-yo dieting? What am I trying to communicate to myself when I am constantly judging the size and shape of my body?
What feelings have been left at the welcome matt of the soul, desperately waiting to come inside for refuge?
This got me thinking—again—about the gay male community at-large. Body image issues are rampant. I spoke about this at my recent book signing at Books Inc., in San Francisco, for the book I co-wrote with Dr. Maria Rago, “Shut Up, Skinny Bitches.” I perused one of our chapters, dubbed, “Shut Up, About Excluding Guys,” which plunges into the issue of body image and more, as it relates to men and gay men, and young boys.
Take note of some of the stats we uncovered in our research:
•Every one in eight boys (out of 100,000), ages 12 to 18, reported using dietary supplements. (From Project EAT/Eat Among Teens)
•The Eat Among Teens studies (EAT) performed by the Minn- esota University School of Public Health surveyed 2,500 teens across five years. The stats tell us a full 30 percent of males are dissatisfied with their bodies. They feel shame and fear of being unacceptable and rejected, perhaps because 50 percent believe they should be thinner, and 50 percent think they should be heavier and more muscular. Overall, girls hate their bodies and want them to be smaller.But guys are in a double bind—to be simultaneously large, muscular, trim, and slender.
• One in eight boys (out of 100,000) between the ages twelve and eighteen, reported using dietary supplements. And who knows what the hell is in those drugs, since most of that industry is unregulated.
• One-third of adolescent males were desperate enough to use unhealthy weight control methods while attempting to lose weight.
• The 6 percent of males who were vegetarian were more likely to be involved in unhealthy weight control behaviors.
• Thirty-two percent of males used skipping meals, diet pills, and smoking more cigarettes to lose or control weight.
• Four percent of males reported taking laxatives, diuretics, vomiting after meals, or fasting.
• About 5.4 percent of males reported steroid use. Steroid use was statistically associated with the following: participation in sports that emphasize weight and shape, disordered eating, substance abuse, parental concern about weight, lower self-esteem, more depressed mood, and suicide attempts.
So … how do you know if you have an eating disorder or significant body image issue? Take note of the following list, also noted in our book:
1. Strong, Persistent Drive for Thinness/Desire to “Look” good, attractive, etc.
Left unattended, the desire for thinness clouds judgment … and becomes more important than anything else. The drive consumes your life, isolates you from others, and changes your interest patterns. You feel as if they’ve lost themselves on a quest for thinness and “attractiveness.” Self-esteem plummets.
2. Preoccupation and Fear of Eating and Being Overweight
How much time each day do you spend asking yourself what you should eat, what to do about something you ate, what not to eat, what your body looks like, what to wear, how fat you are, and other such questions? What do you consider a healthy amount of time to think about this topic? Five percent of your time? Twenty percent? Thirty percent? People with eating disorders spend 70, 80, 90 percent, or more, of their time focused on such thoughts. Many professionals now consider eating disorders to be a type of anxiety disorder related to obsessive compulsive disorder.
3. Body Dissatisfaction
Many sufferers are so preoccupied and ashamed of their bodies that they shower with the lights off. Imagine that! For most, the longer they look at a photo of themselves, the more flaws they find. Others can’t find any photos of themselves because they’ve ripped them all up. And then, there’s clothing. How long does it take to choose an outfit to wear? Many people are engaged in an all-out war with their bodies and spiral into an emotional whirlpool of self-hatred.
People with eating disorders tend to be hard on themselves. They beat themselves up over how they look, what they say, and who they are. Perfectionism promotes feeling like an utter failure. Nothing they ever do is good enough and they fail to give themselves credit for anything. They feel worthless … They constantly try to shield themselves by creating a perfect emotional mask, but inside they’re in pain; inside, they’re hiding.
Binge-eating usually develops in dieters and/or food restrictors because their behavior revolves around fighting a big animal: hunger … Many people with eating disorders eat erratically. They alternate between periods of severe restricting and periods when their eating feels out of control.
While creating the book I was struck with a thought: When I’m 65, will I still be preoccupied with what I am eating, how I look and if I am “good enough?” I can’t imagine what that kind of mindset might do to, say, the person I am in a relationship with, let alone me. But then … this leads into another discussion about older gay men and their journey/evolution. How have elder gays adjusted to the changes in their bodies; to the flood of youth-inspired media images? How do they feel—about themselves, their bodies?
More on that … soon. In the meantime, check out The National Association For Males With Eating Disorders. Insightful!