My work in the past has addressed how mainstream masculinity affects eating habits in men by making them eat so much they feel sick, or misuse protein powder and other supplements, or suppress their emotions and promote emotional eating habits. I have personally experienced various pressures from the push of mainstream masculinity in how to eat, and the effects continue to linger and rear their head in times of emotional distress and thick-headedness. Growing up, I was incredibly susceptible to these kinds of external pressures.
I wanted so badly to fit in, to be masculine, and food became a point of contention for me in that quest for manliness.
My parents were always very explicit in how they wanted me to eat. They wanted me to limit what I ate because—with it being the 90’s and the beginnings of some of the recent craze around childhood diabetes and “obesity”—they did not want me to “grow up sick.” Even if my parents would offer seconds of meals they had made for my sisters and me, there was always a looming feeling that they were judging me, especially as I got older. I was either eating too fast, something they would often say would come to bite me later on when eating around others, or I was eating too much, something that became common when we would have large meals such as Thanksgiving dinner or if we would go out to a buffet. I wanted to listen to my parents, but I had this internal battle brewing that involved a great deal of conflicting feelings about myself not only as a boy or a future man but as a respectable human being.
As a kid, I would see things like eating contests and I would regard the men who competed in them to be somewhat epic in a really weird way: they could defy what the body is meant to do by shoving large amounts of food into their mouths and often keep it all down. It was not so much that I wanted to be like them in the sense that they were idols, but I had a great deal of respect for these men. But I know that was not necessarily the common view of these infamous over-eaters.
To many, people who gorge themselves on food, whether it is in a competition or in daily life, are disgusting, gluttonous, and really anything other than respectable. This sentiment was even stronger when the over-eating was associated with fat men. It was interesting, though, because it seemed not only to be a disgusting habit that fat men would partake in, it was almost expected.
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On top of that internal conflict I faced, in terms of wanting to eat large amounts of food, I was faced with other body ideals that were even more difficult for me to conform to. As I have talked about in other pieces on The Body Is Not An Apology, I cannot say that I necessarily idolized the typical “good male” body that is super muscular and attractive. But it would be false of my to say that it did not add to my pressures of pursuing some mainstream sense of masculinity. On top of that, I was inundated with the images of super-skinny men in the pop-punk and alternative rock scenes, men who I did not necessarily idolize for their appearance so much as for their musical abilities, but their appearance would still enter my mind as it raced around trying to make sense of this incredibly confusing sense of “what actually is masculine?”
My mind often became a whirlwind of that “what is masculine” question and my various emotions toward my own body. I wanted to be a good son for my parents and do as they told me to do; I wanted to be able to defy my own human form with great amounts of food; I wanted to resemble something in between the ultra-muscular men of the mainstream as well as the ultra skinny men of the bands I loved. At the time, growing up, it seemed like there was one thing that I had the most direct control over that would decide whether or not I would be able to do any of these things: eating.
To be honest, eating felt good, and still feels good to this day.
As it probably should, considering we need to eat to live and all that. But it has always instilled a level of comfort in me to be able to eat and not feel guilty about it, to just enjoy the tastes and the feelings of eating. But for me to be a good son, to look like those people who’s bodies I had thrown at me, I could not eat anymore, right? I would have to cut back or, even better, stop eating altogether, and then I could work on becoming super muscular, or end up super skinny, and not become a disappointment to my parents for falling into the “trap” of childhood obesity. These are the thoughts that would go through my head almost every time I would eat a meal with my family, and part of me wanted it to believe that was actually possible.
Of course I would never stop eating, in fact, I would do the opposite: I would eat more. My emotions would catch up to me eventually and I would end up eating seconds and thirds, or finding long forgotten and nearly expired snacks in the cupboards to eat. My cravings would overcome my hunger and I would want to keep eating more and more. It would not be long though before I would start feeling guilty, remembering those pressures that had gotten me to that point in the first place, and I would want to stop eating at all anymore.
This more extreme cycle of binge eating and self-loathing would continue well into high school, where I started to make more of my own decisions on what I ate, and when I ate it, and why my binge eating habits might have ultimately had me perpetually sick. But this whole time growing up and dealing with these thoughts I was continuously reminded of one thing, by my peers, by my family, even by my doctor: I was fat, or through their us of euphemism “chubby,” and it was expected of me to want to eat. My self-loathing would grow deeper and deeper the more I convinced myself that this was true, and I would keep eating more and more.
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What I have come to realize now, as an adult about to turn 25 later this year, is that I was not the only person, let alone the only boy, dealing with these issues, but none of us had the outlets to discuss these problems because we would have been seen as too emotional to be true men.
So if there is one thing that I would take from my experiences growing up with this toxic view of myself and my eating habits is that I want to open myself up to those who need the help I could not find with others when I was a kid and teenager, and I hope other people do the same.
The worst forms of body terrorism are sometimes the ones that we inflict on ourselves, and it is important to be able to reach out and have someone talk you out of that darkness.
I have come to love myself in many ways, accepting my fatness at this moment and finding ways to balance how I eat, but I often wonder how different my life might have been if I could have just talked to someone, had someone listen to what I was going through, and maybe be taken out of that darkness myself many years ago.
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