Alex on how disordered eating dominated his life

8 min

My mum took me to a dietitian quickly, who got me right back on track and taught me about what healthy eating was and my requirements at that stage of growing. It got me back on track for a few years. But when I was in about year eight in high school, that feeling of being a social outsider returned and so did the desperation to cling onto a lifeboat while I was drowning. I felt like being fit, athletic and eating healthy was a way to do that. When you’re a teenager and puberty starts, and relationships and sexual attraction become a factor, there was a message that boys who had abs and who exercised and looked after their diet were the ones that attracted women. As an obsessive, anxious person I just clung to that, and within a six-month period, the obsession spiralled out of control from a psychological standpoint. From a physical perspective, my brain and body became so malnourished that I eventually didn’t recognise what was happening to me. 

I ended up in hospital for a month. There’s a narrative amongst many people with eating disorders that they don’t feel “sick enough”, but it shouldn’t take someone nearly dying in a hospital emergency room to learn that they need help. Unfortunately, that’s what it took me at the time. As I was physically renourished, I started to really reconnect with what my life was like before my eating disorder and what I wanted for my future. What I had missed because of it. What I wanted back. I imagined being back on the football field or going out to dinner with my friends without being anxious about food. I was fortunate that once I was discharged I had great support around me – my family, friends and healthcare team. They reminded me of who I was beyond the eating disorder, talked to me about and reminded me of the things – separate from eating, separate from exercise – that they loved about me. Another thing that helped was having a dietitian who was very experienced in eating disorders. He did a really good job of providing me with boundaries, instructions, guidance, reassurance and expectations. 

However, there was still stigma along the way, from select health professionals and some peers at high school, on sporting teams and from coaches. They weren’t malicious or nasty people, it just came back to the misconception that eating disorders are a choice. They thought I was limiting my life, sport, school and social catchups because I was vain and I cared more about my body than I did about them. 

After a few years of recovery, my behaviours evolved into muscularity-oriented disordered eating. That’s an experience where you feel like you’re insufficiently muscular, or your purpose, self-esteem or worth is tied to being muscular, lean and strong. And for men, needing to match what Western society paints as the ideal man. So big arms, big chest, big shoulders, tall, tanned, lots of money, lots of sexual partners interested in them, lots of social status, these sorts of ideas that are really tied with old-fashioned masculinity. I was one of many men my age who was obsessed with achieving these ideals and my eating, my exercise and my lifestyle was completely and utterly revolved around trying to achieve these things. Some examples of that were very obsessive and rigid macronutrient tracking, avoiding eating with family and in social settings because I couldn’t track it like I felt I needed to, using fitness tracking apps, strict and excessive weight training routines, lots of checking my body in the mirror, lots of photos of myself to analyse and critique my body, lots of efforts for external validation, and lots and lots of hours of feeling completely and utterly shit about myself because I felt I could never reach certain ideals. There was a brief time where I considered using anabolic steroids. I went through a good four to five years of this. I needed a fair amount of therapy and self-reflection to recognise that this wasn’t who I wanted to be, it wasn’t healthy, and it wasn’t in line with my values. 

Unfortunately, Western society normalises a lot of disordered eating and exercise by encouraging people to be restrictive, overexercise, to be disciplined and to punish themselves. It’s not inherently a bad thing to want to eat in a more healthy way. It’s not a bad thing to want to move our bodies more, to want to sleep better, to want to build a healthy lifestyle. But there can be a very fine line between things that are disordered or unhealthy and things that are actually health-promoting. A lot of the questions I was asking myself led me to feel like, hold on, this actually isn’t very healthy. Is the way that I’m eating, exercising and living supporting my mental health? Is it helping me feel happy, fulfilled, motivated, content and compassionate? Or is it actually just making me feel anxious and worthless 24/7? Am I only eating and exercising this way to change my body? I just thought, do I really want to shrink my life and get rid of everything else that brings me joy and health and happiness to be on this treadmill where I’m actually never ever going to be good enough no matter what? Or do I actually want to step off and meet my mental health and social health needs whilst learning how to eat and exercise in a way that supports that as well?

“Now I’m comfortable with eating literally any food that is placed in front of me, and I’m able to not feel food guilt, dread or anxiety anymore. I’m not thinking about it 24/7. Exercise-wise and about my body, I feel like I’ve come a long way. Most of my exercise goals now are based around enjoyment and having me-time, a hobby away from work and occasionally catching up with people, doing something socially and trying new things.”

– Alex

In terms of body image, I’d say I’m still fluctuating. There are days where I’m able to fully divide what my body looks like from my self-worth, and I’m able to focus on the numerous other things that help me feel worthwhile, accomplished and motivated. But there are still days where I am more anxious or I have dealt with something difficult at work, or I’ve had a conflict with someone, and I do find myself entering a bit of a spiral of self-criticism. But I’m also able to pull myself back up and implement the things I’ve learned to manage that and remember everything else about my life that helps me feel worthwhile. 

Based on the men I speak to, whether that’s clients or people I’m close to, I feel like we’ve come a long way in awareness and talking about men’s body image. However, we still have a hell of a long way to go. Unfortunately, there’s still a message or an underlying assumption that eating disorders are a disease of thin, white, privileged females, conventionally attractive females, who starve themselves to lose a lot of weight and go on diets for a long time. Even though those presentations do exist and they are absolutely worthy of help and attention, they are only a very small subset of a multitude of different kinds of eating disorders. Unfortunately, men are one group of people who are overlooked or assumed to be experiencing something else. 

Also as boys, we’re still taught to swallow the hard feelings, to get over it, to be strong ones, to get on with it. We’re taught these messages that it’s weak to be experiencing mental health difficulties or to be feeling shit about ourselves. Unfortunately, a lot of boys who may be feeling this way about themselves may never speak up about it, and they may not even know that they’re experiencing body issues or disorders because of these factors getting in the way of them understanding that they need help, let alone actually seeking help.

My advice to other boys or men going through this is that you are not alone. That it’s okay to be experiencing these difficulties. That being vulnerable and opening up about your experience with people you trust isn’t a weakness. It’s actually a strength to do something that a majority of people don’t do, and it will set an example for other people in your life who also need help and who will also decide to go and seek help when they see you doing so. And that it’s absolutely possible to pursue a health-seeking diet and exercise or lifestyle pattern without feeling the need to feel dominated by it and without feeling the need to meet a certain body ideal.

If you or someone you know needs help with eating disorders or body image issues, you can contact the Butterfly Foundation 1800 33 4673.


Body dysmorphic disorder
Eating disorder
Mental health
Muscularity oriented disordered eating

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