Adam Rippon recently took headlines by storm for more than his skating; he is one of few men to discuss his own experience with disordered eating. His openness about his eating disorder challenges the notion that eating disorders are only challenges for women, a misconception that keeps men from getting the help they need.
The issue is particularly problematic among gay men. NBC reported that 42 percent of men who suffer from eating disorders are gay, suggesting a huge disproportionate struggle in the gay community.
I understand Adam’s experience, as well as the experiences of many men, because I also spent years struggling with disordered eating. I’m currently a fitness coach in Chicago, but I didn’t grow up as an athlete, although I did briefly join the track team to up my cardio. As a teen male with an eating disorder, I saw and heard virtually no men discussing the issue in the public sphere. There were no success stories, there was no one to help me understand my relationship with food and no medical treatment options because of my gender.
One therapist expressed confusion at my refusal to eat because the media glorified big men and smaller women. She didn’t know where the drive to starve in a male would even come from. Eating disorders affect women at a higher rate than they affect men, but treating them as solely problematic for women leaves young men without success stories, support and hope.
I’m grateful for my journey because it demanded that I dig deeply to understand myself and my place in the world. My disordered eating made me ask myself, “How do you measure your worth?”
For years, I measured my worth on a scale, fighting constantly for a lower number. I could ramble on about clavicles, bleeding knuckles, vomit-stained tiles and 109 pounds of lifeless, dreamless bones, but that’s not what this story is about. It’s about failure, acceptance and self-worth.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end with me entering a wing eating contest, but it does end with me living.
I spent the prime of my high school years starving, thinking about starving, developing creative ways to starve and obsessing over thinness. If you’ve had an ED, you get it. It’s not a part-time job; it’s all-consuming. Hunger is a drug and the feeling of losing weight was exhilarating.
Each morning began by stepping on a scale. The number staring back at my naked, freezing body determined the type of day that it would be. It didn’t matter what I weighed two days ago, two months ago or two years ago. The number needed to fall every day. I was like an entrepreneur addicted to sales, results and data. I was constantly celebrating or mourning over numbers. The attitude I started each day with was entirely dependent on my morning weigh-in. My perception of self wasn’t determined by victories at school, friendships or happiness; my self-worth was entirely dependent on hitting a lower number.
The eating disorder gave me total control over everything in my life because the only thing I cared about was getting thinner. I couldn’t get hurt or fail or lose or get rejected. I siloed myself off in a world where thinness and starving myself were the only drivers of joy or measurements of success. My love affair with thinness was my armor against the world. Nothing could break me because I was constantly lifted up by the victories of my weight loss.
But thats is not the world. It felt satisfying, but it wasn’t a life. Failures, lost jobs and broken hearts are all part of life. When I shut down my ability to feel pain and loss, I couldn’t feel joy or exuberance.
At one moment, I was told that I needed to eat or I was going to die. I did not want to die, but I couldn’t comprehend a world where I abandoned the thinness that I worked so hard to achieve. There wasn’t one come-to-Jesus moment when I was cured; recovery started with tiny decisions to trust, big failures, a few tears, and lots of deep breaths.
If recovery seems impossible, trust that the power, grit and love that got you this far will carry you through your toughest days. It’s not about making your nutritionist happy or finishing some recovery program, it’s about nourishing yourself today and in this moment.
Disordered eating provides constant adrenaline. When you miss the rush, remember how much it costs. For me, it cost an appreciation for the moment, the fearlessness to fail, and the openness to enjoy the love of my friends and family. On the hardest days, even still at 23, I remind myself that those things make me who I am, not my body.
I was not going to be straight, or perfect, or brilliant or born into British royalty, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be good and loving and compassionate and strong.
Accept who you are, what makes you tick and what makes you happy. Accept yourself in this moment. You can’t change who you are, so be the best, truest self you can be. We’re constantly striving for more, for thinner, for better, for stronger. Don’t strive so much that you miss the truth that beats in your chest in this moment. Don’t forget the goodness that runs through your veins that isn’t contingent on thinner or better.
I wish I knew life was passing me by when I was 16. I wish I cherished the runs on the track team and the play rehearsals and the school dances more. I wish I didn’t remember prom in terms of the exact amount of food I ate, but instead in terms of laughs. I wish I ate more dinners with my family. I wish I didn’t isolate myself from friends and loved ones. At 16, a therapist asked me what I would think about if I didn’t think about food and hunger all day. I was dumbfounded. I had no fucking idea. I challenge myself each day to feel the moments that I was numb to for so long. When all else fails, breathe. And trust.
You are imperfect and human, so let perfection go. Let skinny go. Let control go. Thinness is fool’s gold, so dig for truth. Measure yourself in the people you help, the moments when you feel alive, and risks you take to be your truest self.