Ever since I was a kid, I’ve struggled with thinking I’m ugly and fat. This in itself is not so uncommon these days, even for boys. But when my body-image issues spiraled into an eating disorder, nobody ever thought to ask me about issues with food and body image. You see, in the 1980s and 90s,eating disorders were considered a young, white, teenage girl problem among the psychiatrists and therapists from whom I sought counseling for my “depression.”

I was a chubby teen boy being told repeatedly I was too fat to be acceptable to my peers, too slow for my athletic coaches, too embarrassing for my family, and just too damn big by any number of people who seemed to have an opinion and sway over my food intake. To me, food was the epicenter of love, joy and happiness in my lonely world. It felt like everyone wanted to take that away, leaving me even more vigilant and anxious. As I grew older, I realized that weight loss seemed to be the thing that made everyone proudest of me.

Since attention was what I wanted most, I didn’t care if my crash diets left me weak, irritable, loopy and tired. I didn’t care that living like that was unsustainable, that I’d become an emotional wreck, or that I’d inevitably be driven to suicidal thinking. Nope. I needed the high praise that came for having a slender body.

People picked on me less at school. Every now and again a cute girl might find me cute, too. And all my male role models finally found me acceptable, whether it was my swimming or baseball coach, a doctor, or my father. Losing weight may not be the easiest way to get attention, but it was the best and most effective method I had at my disposal, and it reinforced my unhealthy relationship with food. You might ask if anyone ever said that my weight made me unacceptable or if my ideas about myself were some sort of neurotic, TV- and magazine-influenced behavior. Sadly, whether it was from family members or from the media, I sure as hell heard that being overweight was a precursor to certain death, shameful to my family, and a reason no woman would want to be with me. And it wasn’t just me. As an adult, I learned that my grandparents, parents, and siblings alike were also ashamed of their bodies, and that I was not the only family member with an eating disorder history thanks in large part to the fear and loathing of fat that raged through our family psyche.

I saw several therapists over the years, mostly for depression, but once I was finally diagnosed with an eating disorder at 30 years old, my life finally began to turn around. Still, why did it have to take nearly two decades before someone saw I had an eating disorder? Whether it’s 1982 when my eating disorder really began or 2018, eating disorders in males are terribly under-diagnosed. The most frequently cited statistic is that males make up about 10% of eating disorder cases. That number has been roundly disputed, and the National Association for Males with Eating Disorders (NAMED – full disclosure, I am the president of this non-profit) cites research that shows the number is closer to 33% for anorexia and bulimia, and approximately 40% for those with binge eating disorder. Researcher Dr. Stuart Murray at the University of California – San Francisco writes that if you include muscle dysmorphia the numbers are even more equal. Yet we go without treatment at incredible high rates and suffer and die silently in the shadows. Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illness there is according to the Academy for Eating Disorders.

My passion is to ensure nobody is left out of the discussion anymore when it comes to eating disorders recognition and treatment. In 2008, I started the Body Image Therapy Center, and in 2014 published Man Up to Eating Disorders, all in the hopes of destigmatizing this disease and getting as many into treatment as possible.

So how am I doing now? I’m happy! I appreciate my body for all that it can do, feel, and experience. It is my home, not my billboard. I’m a large, proud man taking up my space in the world with joy and laughter. I’m a father, husband, therapist, advocate, ally, entrepreneur, and musician. Being fully recovered from an eating disorders allows for this full life. I’m forever grateful for it.

The author is a licensed social worker and a certified eating disorder specialist.

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Andrew Walen