Movember is a worldwide initiative to raise awareness for men’s health which is run throughout the month of November every year. Many men all across the globe grow mustaches to raise awareness for men’s health issues such as prostate cancer, testicular cancer and men’s suicide.
This Movember NIED would like to shed some light on another men’s health issue that isn’t widely discussed. Eating Disorders have historically been labelled as a young women’s disease and the idea that men can be just as affected by these deadly disorders is something that is only now making into the mainstream. The National Eating Disorders Organization (NEDA) states that 1 in 3 people struggling with an Eating Disorder is male, but due in large part to cultural bias, they are much less likely to seek treatment. In a recent BBC documentary called “Living with Bulimia” famous cricket player, Freddie Flintoff, shares his experience with an Eating Disorder, which he kept hidden from his family, friends, and the world for decades.
Chris Vallee knows the stigma attached to being a man with an Eating Disorder all too well and is glad that male Eating Disorders are now being discussed more in the media. Chris was only 12 years old when he developed Anorexia Nervosa. He was a shy and anxious child which he believes contributed to the development of his Eating Disorder. That, and the stress of moving from elementary school to high school and the realization of the different societal norms that were at play as he got older, which included pressures around weight and judgement about food. “There wasn’t one specific cause of it,” he says. “It was just a multitude of things combined. But the ultimate goal, obviously, was to gain happiness by losing weight.”
Chris was first admitted for treatment when he was 12 and cycled in and out of hospital and treatment programs until he was 18. He says that up until he was about 16 or 17, he definitely felt the stigma of being a boy with an Eating Disorder, and he kept it hidden from most people. “That was extremely challenging until I was mature enough to know that no matter what gender you are, you can be affected by anything in life,” he says.
While Chris says he couldn’t always relate to all the girls he met in treatment as an adolescent, he does believe that many of the things that trigger an Eating Disorder, like depression, anxiety and societal pressures, are the same for men and women. “It’s just like depression,” he says. “The Eating Disorder sort of gets triggered by different things as well. So, whether you are a man, woman, non-binary or whatever you identify as, it affects everyone.”
He also believes that the idea of Eating Disorders being a feminine illness is detrimental to men who are suffering. Chris identifies as a gay man; but emphasizes that there are many straight men that struggle with Eating Disorders as well. “I know someone who I was in treatment with and he is doing great. He has a girlfriend, and he is very proud; but he struggled with that a lot,” he says.
Chris believes that male Eating Disorders are more prevalent than most people realize. Today’s unrealistic beauty standards don’t just touch women. There are many men out there that manipulate food and their body to try and achieve what society dictates as ideal. “I think people need to start looking around them and see that there are tons of guys who are very obsessed with the way they look,” he says. “It’s not just girls who buy full length mirrors and pose and stuff. Guys are the exact same.”
Chris says acceptance is key for any boy or man who is finding themselves struggling with food. Eating Disorders are hard enough to deal with on their own, without the added stress of fighting a diagnosis because it is a “girl’s disease.” Everyone deserves the same access to non-judgemental support and treatment, no matter their gender.
Chris has now been recovered for 3.5 years and is a mentor at Hopewell in Ottawa. He credits his recovery to his great treatment team and his very supportive family. He is adamant that everyone should find a support system in recovery, whether that be paid professionals, family or friends. “It’s really, really hard to do it on your own,” he says. “You need someone as a backbone, or someone to talk to.” He also found a lot of motivation in his friendships, hobbies and career aspirations and goals. He definitely remembers a time when he thought he would never recover; but now he believes that full recovery is possible for anyone. “There are many people out there who have fully recovered and just know that it won’t be a perfect journey and there will be slip ups here and there,” he says. “The ultimate goal is to know it is possible and to try your hardest to get there.” For more information and resources for support check out www.nedic.ca