A Growing Boy
I was eight years-old the first time I ate so much that I threw up. The meal was spaghetti with ketchup and Parmesan cheese, a classic of my childhood served at least once every week or two when my parents were just too tired to make anything more complicated. It was normal for me to have second helpings on these evenings, but for some reason that night, I insisted on fourth and fifth plates. I piled the food high.
My family told me to slow down, that I would make myself sick. I insisted that I was fine, continued to swallow my forkfuls, more slowly as I felt my abdomen tighten with the strain. After finishing my last dish, ensuring that there were none of the usual leftovers, I retired to my bedroom to lie down. Inside of ten minutes, I was in the bathroom my sister and I shared throughout my childhood, trying to convince myself that there couldn’t possibly be anything more to expel. She stood at the door when I exited and asked about the noises she’d heard in that way our loved ones sometimes do when they know the answer but know even more that we need to admit it ourselves.
I repeated that I was fine and retreated to my room once more. We never spoke about it again, and as far as I could tell, she said nothing to my parents.
Since those days—and honestly, probably even before them—food has been a strange issue for me to contend with day-to-day. When I began lifting weights seriously in my early twenties, I often said that I was doing so because it meant that I could eat whatever I wanted. This is a really common mentality, particularly among young male lifters who confuse the caloric surpluses required to gain healthy muscle mass with encouragement to consume as much food as possible.
I want to be clear here: what a person chooses to consume and how much is a highly personal action heavily tied to important intersectional questions of bodily autonomy, class, culture, upbringing, and desire. I don’t want to shame anyone.
That said, my personal relationship with food through most of my life has been decidedly problematic. There is no situation in which it can be considered physically or emotionally healthy to eat so much in one sitting that the body’s only response is to regurgitate. I never induced the vomiting—it was purely, always a matter of volume.
For many, food consumption ties into self-care. There is the stereotype of one treating their body “as a temple,” which is supposed to mean that they care for it with deliberately calibrated food choices and physical activity. Much more common is the enjoyment of “comfort foods” eaten for pure enjoyment and often to shave off feelings of sadness and inadequacy.
Both of these methods are perfectly fine in and of themselves. I myself straddle them to a certain extent though always find myself taking the latter to an unhealthy extreme. I eat well, but I do so often very emotionally, diving into my food as a means of avoiding my problems and my emotions.
Masculinity’s Relationship to Food
Some reasons for this are unique to my own experiences, though others are easily tied to some of my demographic encouragements. Masculinity is frequently tied to troubling extremes and even more troubling food-based associations. Every time that I have ever visited a restaurant with some form of “Can you finish this meal?” challenge, the wall with photos of patrons who’ve successfully consumed the three-pound burrito or the 64-ounce steak is always almost exclusively covered with masculine-presenting individuals who look pleased with having shown their capacity to consume.
Three out of four women in the United States struggle with some form of eating disorder. Conversely, one in four men struggle with the same issues. In both of these cases, the numbers are often considered low for the actual percentages of the population due the difficulties of diagnosing disordered eating and the stigmas attached to admitting them.
In my own case, I have issues with using food as a reward system, and on binge-consumption. I have never been officially diagnosed with an eating disorder though I have had my struggles come up in my sessions with mental health professionals and counselors. None of them have ever considered my problems serious enough to warrant action beyond acknowledgement of the patterns and recommendations to “keep an eye on them.”
This is where it gets tricky. I trust my counselor. I built up that trust over months of sessions and deep emotional work. I choose not to discount her opinion. But I’m very aware that eating disorders are regularly viewed as a “women’s disease” and the behavior can be ignored or dismissed. At the very least, these factors make it difficult for me to discuss the struggles with my greater support systems.
My father used to tell me that I had to learn self-control around food. Meanwhile, some of my most treasured memories with my best friends (male and female) have revolved around moments when we, by our own admission, stuffed ourselves. After all, in high school and college, it’s only expected that we eat huge quantities of pizza and sweets because we’re growing and young and have metabolisms that can handle them.
More Radical Reads: Masculinity, Meals and Learning to Eat Despite Shame
Hiding, Silence and Denial
I hate that behind all of these people’s backs, I would snatch away the food from their plates when they were not looking. I hate that when they could not finish their own meals and I had already cleaned out my own orders, I would try to guilt them into letting me finish their food rather than take home leftovers.
This behavior wasn’t an everyday occurrence. It was always worse after a notably bad day or a notably good one. I binged to cheer myself up and to reward myself. I got away with it because my peers and my family would say that I was a growing boy and growing boys just eat a lot. Also, I stopped making the mistakes of my eight-year-old self. I took extra plates to my bedroom and snuck my food and got much better at recognizing when I was approaching that vomit-point.
When I crossed that line, I got better at dealing with it quietly, stealthily.
The boundaries of masculinity and the machismo aspects of the Latino culture in which I was raised already add a decently horrendous stigma to openly admitting problems. Silence and denial are protective measures, and should be employed within our inner lives as much as it is with our public ones. All of this considered, a troubled relationship with food is pretty easily concealed.
More Radical Reads: New Masculinity: How the Alpha Male Stereotype Perpetuates Oppression
Ironically, it became even more easy to dismiss as a problem once I reached a certain degree of political progressivism because in the course of supporting efforts to tackle the issues of fat-shaming and class-based biases against the food-insecure, I developed a fresh counter-attack when less-woke friends and family members told me that I’d get fat if I kept eating that way (as a side note, this neither stopped those comments, nor did it halt my behavior—all it ever did was add an extra layer of shame to compound the problem).
Suddenly, my eating felt like a political stance worth defending. Again, while I hold that defending others’ decisions and choices regarding food is a noble action, I was personally using it as a crutch to not admit to my own psychologically unhealthy behavior.
As is classically the case, the key to dealing with my issues has been communication and a deconstruction of the influences involved. I enjoy food. I must consume it to survive. And ideally, I shouldn’t be using it as a hiding place for my darker thoughts at the expense of doing the emotional work that I know I’m capable of. The expectations of my gender and culture equally allow me to ensconce the problem, but part of Radical Self-Love involves not falling back on these privileges.
It means caring enough about myself to remember I’m worth loving regardless of what’s on my plate.
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[Feature Image: A photo of a person walking down a street. They have short dark hair and is wearing a grey sweatshirt. They are eating pink cotton candy. Behind them is a dark cloudy sky, street lights and tall buildings. Source: Charlie Speeckaert]