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19 December 2008, 5:10 pm 6 Comments

Health: Starving for Acceptance: Gay Men & Eating Disorders Part 2

Jason Dilts lives in Wichita, Kansas and is a graduate of Wichita State University, who is pondering his next move in life. He loves his life as a single gay man and enjoys spending quality time with his amazing friends. In part two of his story, he discusses his recovery from Anorexia. In part one, he explored his descent into the disease.

Something needed to be done. I was literally fading away. Ironically, the more weight I lost, the more I hated my life. I thought being thin would make me happy, but missing meals, losing sleep, and ducking social engagements for fear of slipping up and eating something “bad” had made my life miserable. I knew I had a problem that couldn’t be excused any longer by my former size or allowed to be encouraged by social accolades or psychotic fringe websites.

I finally realized none of what I was doing was worth the cost of my own life. If I had to go to these extreme measures for a boyfriend, I decided that I’d rather be alone.

It was a long, arduous process to get back to “normal.” I sought counseling, though I had to practically pull teeth to find a qualified therapist who wasn’t overloaded and was willing to take on a male client. Once I did, my insurance provider informed me that my visits wouldn’t be covered because my therapist wasn’t in their network. They didn’t seem to care that she was the only therapist in town I could get in to see. Despite this battle, though, I was determined to beat this disease.

I found a friend who helped me do this. That friend was feminism.

In college I had grown to strongly identify with the feminist values of self-determination, acceptance, and personal empowerment. I was also keenly aware that how we act and behave as men and women was determined, to at least some degree, by the culture at-large. Left unchecked and unexamined, our lives could end up being mere stereotypes. I framed my value system around feminism, which may seem odd for a gay man to do. For me, it just seemed natural. How could I not identify with an ideology that fully accepted me as a person and adamantly encouraged me to live life on my own terms?

I was a full-on feminist in every sense of the word – Save one. My unrelenting best friend, who always kept me in check, fiercely and consistently pointed out how hypocritical I was being in obsessing over my body. One day she put her foot down. She demanded that I sit and not get up until I had read an essay titled The Body Politic in an anthology of writings by third-wave feminists called Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation. I acquiesced, annoyed. I was never the same.

The author’s words left an indelible imprint on my soul. The confession of the author’s self-induced corporal abuse and the conflicts it created with her own value system were a haunting parallel to my own life. She had convinced herself, like me, that she had no problem. She too found empowerment in her thin obsession. Eventually, though, she had to face reality. By the time I was done reading the essay, I knew I had to face reality as well. Her words were like a splash of cold water waking me up from a deep sleep. I felt her spirit reaching through the pages and shaking me, urging me to wake up. In that moment, feminism saved my life.

In the end, it was my own determination that allowed me to take back control of my body. I had to spend a lot of uncomfortable days forcing myself to eat. I had to alter my exercise routine. I had to dig deep inside my psyche to understand that the root of my problems didn’t stem from how much body fat I measured, but rather how much self-esteem I had. I had to come to the realization that there is a lot more to me than a number on a scale. I needed to get over my single complex. Anyone who was interested in me solely because I was thin wasn’t worth having in my life. Most importantly, I had to accept that I was good enough alone, and that I didn’t need another person to complete me. I had to amble my way back to myself.

I still struggle a bit with body issues, but thankfully, my eating and exercising habits have become normal. I’m able to eat food again – and enjoy it! Exercise is something I do more for being healthy than for losing weight. I’m learning to accept the fact that I may never have a six-pack and zero body fat. I’m also accepting that who I am is more important than how I look. I’m realizing that for anyone to be attracted to me, they need to be attracted to the me that is inside.

I also realize, though, that the issues that lead me to having an eating disorder are much larger than me and bigger than my own story. At one point in Travis Mathews’ film, “Do I Look Fat,” the interviewer talks with the owner of a Castro Street diet pill store. He pointedly asks the owner how he feels about his customers who abuse the pills and go to extremes to seek out the perfect body.

Gleefully, the straight male owner responds that he loves it, explaining that he set up shop in the Castro just to attract business from gay men known to be obsessed with their looks. Their desire for perfection keeps the cash coming in for him, and he surmises it’s a good thing for everyone. Gays get to be beautiful, he gets to be rich. This sentiment sheds light on the fact that we’ve been caught in a corporate matrix. Just about every industry in the business of selling body-related products doesn’t mind exploiting the damages society causes that mortally wound our self-esteem. This fight is not merely a personal battle; it’s gotten downright political.

If we’re always at the gym trying to transform our bodies into images of perfection, we’re not out in the real world, showing straight people images of our own humanity. If we have two hour daily work out regiments, we likely don’t have time to fight for social justice within our own community. That’s exactly where some people want us, too! They want us to perpetuate self-defeating behaviors. They want us destroying ourselves — and by extension, our own community — so that we won’t be able to challenge their homophobic notions. They would rather we fade away than rise up.

It’s time we shed light on it, and shattering the silence is the first step. We need more movies, books, and articles where people tell their stories. Mathews’ movie is a great leap forward in this dialogue. We have to rectify the misnomer that an eating disorder is a woman’s issue only. It’s a gay issue, too! We also have to understand the intersections between gender and sexuality that pre-disposition gay men to be more vulnerable when it comes to body image issues. We also need to demand that more professional research be done on gay men and eating disorders and that more work go in to identifying root causes. We need to present alternative images of gay male beauty and sexual attractiveness. We need to put pressure on the gay media to show more diversity in what is presented to be the modern gay male.

Finally, we need to just accept ourselves. We can’t expect straight society to embrace us when we’re full of self-loathing.

It took a lot of sweating, starvation, and soul searching for me to get there. Maybe if more people take steps to expose these realities, people’s thoughts on eating disorders won’t be limited to images of Mary Kate Olsen’s size 0 dress and Tracey Gold’s vomit jars. They can be expanded to help empower all people who suffer from the grueling uncomfortability of starving for acceptance.

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  • Clearlyhere said:

    Very nice.

  • Clearlyhere said:

    Very nice.

  • Kofi the Bear said:

    It is my personal mission to rid the world of the image over substance-mind/body/spirit split that plagues our culture. As a POC gay male I think these stories are also a shared concern that tie our still segregated communities. We should wrap our arms around those who are plagued with the idea that they cant be themselves. We need to be a strong community of proud individuals in order to fight the mainstream.

  • Tyrone said:

    Thanks 4 sharing this. We need more of this. I look forward 2 part 2. I feel body issues is an underdiscussed topic in our community.

  • Seth macy said:

    This has a very powerful ending and I appreciate the message as a whole. Your words make this a very real issue.

  • Fjord Lovers said:

    I am proud of you Jason.

    Recently Nicholas has been afraid to go swimming because of how he perceives his body. He is ten. It scares me and it crushes me. I am going to read more on this subject. Thanks for your insights.