Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Paying It Forward

The Spring Lobby Day with the Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC) is coming up, and it’s got me reflecting on how I got involved as an activist, writer, and advocate. In 2007, a friend was trying to organize an event for Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and she was trying to get guest speakers to come and share their stories. She was hoping I would lend a guy’s perspective to the issue, being the only non-female she knew personally who had ever struggled with an eating disorder. The event she was planning ended up not happening because of a scheduling conflict, but I’d already worked up the nerve to write a speech and put myself out there publically. A few weeks later I found myself on my way to my first event with the EDC on Capitol Hill.

The whole “guy’s perspective” seems to be a common theme for me now that I’ve put my name and story out there. Most of the interviews I’ve been asked to do are stories focused on eating disorders specifically in men versus discussing them in a general way. While I’m glad it’s getting more attention, it seems every story is emphasizing the fact that men get eating disorders, too – as if it’s a breaking headline. When I was in recovery, I knew I stood out in group therapy or support meetings because of my sex and gender. Other than the obvious biological differences, though, I wasn’t really any different. Of course, everyone’s experience, from onset of disease through recovery, is going to be unique to them, but there are universal similarities across experiences – otherwise, group therapy or meetings probably wouldn’t be very effective!

In my weekly group therapy, I was the only person – including the counselors – who wasn’t biologically female, but still relating to the things being shared and occasionally having some worthwhile input for a fellow patient. The same goes for the community support meetings, if not more so, which is all the proof I need that eating disorders don’t discriminate. In the recovery groups I participated in, regardless of sex, gender, periods of life, age, and specific classification of disease (anorexia, bulimia, compulsive overeating, binge eating), I found a common experience in the way that eating disorders impacted our lives and the hurdles we encountered in recovery. Despite these commonalities, I stood out, and I knew it. I wrote last month about how eating disorder recovery culture is feminized, and I’d like to talk about that some more.

When I was in recovery, I found a lot of support online. The internet can potentially be a dangerous place for someone with an eating disorder, but a community with strict, rigid moderation (no weights, no numbers, no specific behaviors) can be an excellent source of support, and the anonymity of it all was a great stepping stone to develop a voice of recovery. Anyway, I was one of the only guys, and it was really unnerving how so many posts would start with “Hey ladies! I could use some support today…” and I had to stop myself from responding to every single one that it wasn’t just women present.

It bothers me because there’s already so much ignorance and stigma associated with eating disorders, even just for women. If this concerned any other health condition, be it diabetes or alcoholism or schizophrenia, no one would be talking exclusively about men OR women. I think that if the field of eating disorder treatment, awareness, education, and research is to advance, it must be done with gender neutrality and inclusivity, lest we leave behind those who are struggling and suffering and dying over a simple matter of biology. Defaulting to feminine pronouns out of convenience is no longer acceptable.

When I was sick and anorexia had me constantly worried about my weight and body, it wasn’t so easy to shrug off the additional stigma of gender. Other people’s perceptions of what was masculine and what I felt was expected (maybe assumed is a better word) of me as a male sometimes got in the way, especially with my willingness to talk to my parents. Looking back, I can see that anorexia had just clouded my judgment and instilled doubt and shame in my mind.

And that’s what has kept me involved as a writer and activist – I’m so lucky and fortunate to be healthy, to have found the resources I did when I needed them, and for the opportunities to pay it forward. Those of you who frequent the Real Deal and are familiar with the pledge may recall that number six states, “Be aware of how my attitude and language affects others.” The first thing that comes to mind here is the obvious stuff – weight stigma, body shaming, fatphobia. But what about attitudes we don’t always realize we’re harboring? The field of mental health and eating disorders in particular, like any science, attempts to generalize into categories and establish differences. When this intersects with essentialized gender norms, we run the risk of overlooking certain people and erasing their experiences into the bigger picture.

Have you ever been in a situation where something about you (your race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) made it harder to ask for help or be taken seriously, whether related to body image/eating disorders or not? Sound off in the comments!

headshot5Matt Wetsel is an eating disorder survivor turned activist, based in Richmond, VA. He’s a regular volunteer lobbyist with the Eating Disorders Coalition and currently serves on the EDC Junior Board. You can keep up with him at or on Twitter.

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