This past week, I came across Luke O’Neil’s reflections on his struggle with exercise bulimia in Esquire. The article made me grateful that more is being written about (a) exercise bulimia (I linked to a CNN article in which my friend Abby shared her story a couple weeks ago) and (b) the need for a more gender-neutral discourse about eating disorders in our society. O’Neil sums it up well: “[A]s much as our generations-long assumptions about how men are supposed to behave and feel have changed,” he writes, “it’s still out of the ordinary for a dude to turn to his buddy and say, ‘I’m sad because I feel fat today.’”
O’Neil opens the article with a memory from a trip to Mexico with his wife:
The view from atop the pyramids is breathtaking. From the ruins of Monte Albán, with the verdant valleys of Oaxaca spread out at your feet, it’s hard not to imagine what the Zapotec people saw when they built these structures almost three thousand years ago. Around the great plaza at the center of the ancient city runs a series of tunnels to tombs, altars, and courts for playing ball games. Throughout you’ll find cave paintings and carved stones, including the Danzantes, or “dancers,” believed to depict mutilated sacrificial victims whose bodies were destroyed so the culture could thrive. I can picture it all now. I just wish I had been there to see it in person.
I had to ask my wife what it was like to visit, because at the time I was making a pilgrimage to Gimnasio Calipso Centro Histórico, one of about a dozen fitness centers in Oaxaca City. The views from that site, which I scouted out weeks before our trip, weren’t quite as remarkable as from Monte Albán. It was a shambling two-story structure painted aqua blue. It looked like a gym. But when you have an eating disorder like mine, no view is beautiful enough to override your compulsion to purge.
One of the more difficult things to reconcile about an ED history is the sense of robbed time. I was highly functioning throughout my disorder, which means that it didn’t stop me from going out and doing things. It’s just that “doing them” rarely involved my being able to give myself over fully to an experience. I traveled, but I spent a lot of my travel time calculating precisely what I’d eat and where I’d get it and when it would be consumed; I never suffered from exercise bulimia, but a lot of my decisions about where I’d go and stay involved proximity to a gym. I dined out with friends, but I spent hours scrutinizing menus beforehand and strategizing about how I could pair the least calorically dense options together. When it came time to eat, I spent much of the meal trying to stave off or manage anxiety about what I was eating, rather than settling into a good conversation or savoring my food.
O’Neil does such a good job of capturing how much of everyday life can be lost when one is constantly fighting against worries and compulsions. As he makes clear, attempting to appease one’s compulsive behaviors is usually a zero sum game. The more you try to satisfy the eating disorder’s demands, the more devastating it feels to slip up just a little:
Today, I will run and lift weights, despite instructions from my doctors to take it easy this year as I deal with a back injury. I will run until my knees ache and my back stiffens, and I will manage the ensuing pain with too much Advil. Being skinny, even with back pain, feels a lot better than being chubby. And then, once I feel I have earned it, I will eat a large meal, thereby resetting the cycle of guilt, and begin the process all over again tomorrow. It’s a problem as destructive as any other type of addiction, which, if we’re being forthcoming, I also have plenty of experience with.
Recovery was a really long road for me, thanks to my own stubbornness, my attachment to the disease, and especially my attachment to the feelings of power, control, and specialness that it gave me. I had a lot of tools at my disposal, though, including family and friends who knew what was up, a therapist who gave me gentle but persistent challenges, and a good number of cultural resources–books, blogs, websites–that helped me to recognize and acknowledge the depth of the illness. My healing process might have been an even greater uphill battle had I been without these sources of support and encouragement.
That’s precisely the situation that many people find themselves in if their experience of disordered eating somehow defies cultural norms or expectations. O’Neil focuses on the fact that disordered eating is still a relatively taboo issue for a lot of men–even men who are relatively open about their inner lives:
As someone who has no problem sharing all manner of personal information about himself online every day, and who certainly doesn’t consider himself one to conform to outdated gender stereotypes, writing this—even in an email to my editors—felt embarrassing in a way I was unfamiliar with. It felt like coming out as a crazy person, admitting I had lost control of myself. People will assure you they do not lose respect for others suffering from issues like this, but it’s a hard bias to overcome.
“People might think, ‘I’m a man and I struggle with these insecurities and self-esteem and self-worth issues, and I put a lot of onus on my body to give me that self-esteem, so does that make me a narcissist or an egomaniac?’” Walen [a spokesman for the National Eating Disorders Association] says. “No, it makes you someone who has a brain disease that is actually a lot more common than most people are willing to admit. I think it’s harder for guys to say we have a feminine-normalized issue, just from our culture saying man up.”
I’d say that the normalization of eating disorders isn’t only about gender, but also about class, race, age, shape, personality type, and many other factors. It makes sense for health care professionals to identify high risk groups, but not at the expense of our pushing a more inclusive understanding of EDs and how they show up from person to person.
O’Neil wraps up with a plea for us to continue speaking up and speaking out about the issues, encouraging anyone and everyone who’s struggling to feel unashamed about asking for support. I love how candidly he concludes:
[F]or what it’s worth, here is me speaking up. I recognize the symptoms in myself. You may recognize some of them in yourself. I don’t know that I can offer any real help, but I can say this: You’re not alone, and it’s okay to talk about. You’re not going to die from the embarrassment. Your eating disorder, on the other hand, might do the trick if you let it.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with exercise compulsion—or with food-related behaviors that defy ED stereotyping but are nevertheless a source of concern—perhaps O’Neil’s words will resonate. I echo his assertion that the discomfort of acknowledging a problem and seeking a helping hand are very real, but the cost of keeping quiet is so much higher.
I hope you’ve all had a restful weekend and that this Sunday finds you preparing for a good week ahead! I’m still in the midst of my final “summer A” term push, but the end is in sight, and I’m looking forward to a little 4th of July breather before my summer B class gets underway. For now, these awesome recipe links have been a very welcome source of study distraction
This radish salad is so intriguing: I love the combo of steamed and raw veggies, plus the flavorful additions of kimchi and sesame.
Cauliflower rice leaves me less than satisfied a lot of the time (I usually end up mixing it with regular rice), but I’m just loving Sara’s curried cauliflower rice and chickpea sauté. It’s a perfect light supper for summer weeknights.
Danielle and Cameron’s strawberry and cucumber salad with mint is everything summer. I love balsamic reduction, and I bet it works so nicely here.
Fuel for my love affair with chickpeas: Julie’s awesome sonoma chickpea salad. This would be great with toast or crackers, or stuffed into a pita for lunch.
I’ve been looking for new recipes to make with rhubarb, and Emily’s strawberry rhubarb crumble is calling my name. (Preferably with a big scoop of vegan vanilla ice cream.)
1. A powerful investigation of a tuberculosis outbreak in Alabama and why it’s proving difficult to arrest.
2. A lyrical and informative look at the importance of the moon and lunar light to some of the earth’s life forms and their processes.
3. I’ve known that people could become allergic to meat, but I had no idea that it could be in response to a tick bite! Apparently the long star tick is spreading an allergy to galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, or alpha-gal, which is one of the few protein-linked polysaccharides.
4. I liked RD Jill Weisenberger’s article on helping to protect kids from familiar pressure and goading when it comes to food. It’s often the case that very well-intentioned relatives will sidestep parents’ wishes for what their kids eat; this can be true when it comes to wholesome versus less-wholesome foods (which is Weisenberger’s focus), but most plant-based eaters can attest that it also happens when it comes to eating vs. not eating animal products. It can become a big source of tension at holidays or other family gatherings.
Weisenberger’s tips for staging a respectful dialog about this issue are worth reading if you’re raising vegan or vegetarian kids and feel that your family isn’t always supportive or respectful. They’re also worth a read from an intuitive eating perspective, as one of Weisenberger’s key points is that pushing foods on kids can encourage them to eat to please others, rather than in response to their own hunger cues and cravings.
5. Finally, Luke O’Neil opens up about exercise bulimia.
That’s it for this week. I’m looking forward to my nutritional epidemiology final on Wednesday, after which I can spend some quality time catching up on life and cooking. See you soon.
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