I’m a Man With Bulimia, and This Is What It’s Like
For years, I felt like the only boy in the world with an eating disorder. I was wrong. Writer Louis Baragona recounts his own years-long struggle with bulimia, and how he finally forged a path to recovery. This Article, written by Louis Baragona, appeared in Men’sHealth.com on 29.03.18
When I was 7 years old, I turned to my best friend at lunchtime and whispered, “I have a secret.” She looked at me, wide-eyed. “What?” she asked. I pulled up my shirt and pointed at my protruding belly. “I’m fat,” I said.
She silently shook her head, which my insecure child brain interpreted as confirmation. I had seen fat kids teased and bullied in school, or fat characters on TV portrayed as smelly, stupid, and lazy. Even at 7 years old, I was sophisticated enough to know, deep down in my heart: I was fat, and fat was bad.
I was in middle school when I first taught myself how to throw up. I had just read Gossip Girl, and one of the main characters, Blair Waldorf, threw up after meals. It sounded like a great idea, so I decided to try it. Almost immediately after I did, it felt like a revelation, the quick fix I’d been looking for: Why hadn’t I tried this before?
Part of me knew that throwing up was a bad idea. I’d taken health classes at school, so I was at least somewhat aware of eating disorders and their horrific side effects, from kidney failure to yellow teeth and hair loss. Still, I managed to convince myself that this was the best way to lose weight. I didn’t have the vocabulary to discuss my feelings, so I worked with what I had.
I also knew in my heart that boys weren’t supposed to do this. Men were supposed to be strong, lean, muscular, and manly; I was chubby, pale, and shied away from physical activities that didn’t involve a baton or pompom. Real men weren’t supposed to make themselves throw up after meals. They weren’t supposed to feel insecure about their bodies. And they certainly weren’t supposed to read Gossip Girl.
Nonetheless, for the next several years, I binged and purged in secret, fluctuating between gaining and losing enormous amounts of weight. Save for a few anonymous strangers on the internet, I didn’t tell anyone about it. I knew that people would think that throwing up after meals was something that only girls did, and I knew that the only thing worse than being called fat was being compared to a girl.
Eventually, my secret started to consume my life. There’d be days when I’d sneak off between college classes and running club meetings to cry, because I knew that there wouldn’t be enough time in my schedule to purge. There, in whatever corner I could find, I’d sob, feeling as though I was the only boy who’d ever had an eating disorder. I was wrong.
Eating disorders are rampant among American men. Nearly 10 million American men will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lifetimes, and over the past decade or so, the number of men admitted to hospitals for eating disorders has risen 70 percent. Yet very few men seek treatment, due to “a desire not to appear weak or vulnerable,” per a report from the National Eating Disorder Collaboration (NEDC).
Dr. Howard Steiger, the head of the Eating Disorders Continuum at the Douglas University Institute, says he’s seen an alarming trend among his male patients. “Mainly, we are talking about an increase in bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder,” says Steiger, a.k.a. binge-eating and inducing vomiting after meals. Gay men are also at a higher risk for bulimia, making up an estimated 42% of men who suffer from eating disorders in general, according to the Eating Recovery Center.
It’s unclear why bulimia nervosa in particular is on the rise among men. But Steiger believes that “increasing social pressures on males to stay trim, buff, fit, [and] thin” is a driving force behind the trend.
“There’s this erroneous idea that eating disorders are ‘female’ problems,” Steiger says. “This is often a source of shame for men with eating disorders.” (The fact that eating disorders among men are often assigned cutesy terms like “manorexia” or “brolimia” doesn’t help matters.)
It also doesn’t help that people tend to think of eating disorders as the product of vanity or self-absorption, rather than a serious mental illness. “It’s important to understand that eating disorders occur in all kinds of people, male and female, young and old, rich and poor,” says Steiger. “They are not signs of ‘moral weakness.”
Luckily, the past few years has seen increased awareness about eating disorders, in part due to male celebrities like Zayn Malik and Bam Margera opening up about their own struggles with eating disorders. Steiger finds this trend encouraging and believes it’s part of the reason why male ED diagnoses are on the rise.
In my case, I finally told my parents about my eating disorder after I ate a bite of a weed brownie my senior year of college and called them in a panic. I felt like my throat was closing up, and I immediately assumed that my years of bingeing and purging was the reason why. “I need to go to the hospital,” I moaned over the phone, while also hallucinating. “I think my throat is closing up, and I have to tell you why.”
As it turned out, my throat was fine — but my parents were not. They were incredibly worried about me. For years, I’d feared that if they learned my secret, they would be ashamed of me or think that I was weak. But they weren’t. They just wanted me to get help.
Eventually, I opened up to a therapist, who diagnosed me with bulimia. Though putting an official name to my disease was uncomfortable, it was also a tremendous relief, because it meant I could finally move on with my life.
I learned the coping mechanisms I needed to forge a new path toward a healthy lifestyle. I discovered a new love of fitness — not necessarily to lose weight, but to feel healthier and happier. Most importantly, I learned that I was worthy of respect at any size, both from myself and others.
There is no cure for eating disorders. I know I will continue to struggle with mine for the rest of my life; I will constantly be in recovery. But I am grateful for the self-awareness that the recovery process has brought to me. I know now that my body was never wrong or bad, despite what anyone told me. And what I’d thought would be my secret, the thing under my clothes that left me feeling lonely and torn and ashamed, has now become my celebration.