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Not just a 'women's disease'

At 6 feet 2 inches, Brian Cuban weighed about 180 pounds as a college freshman, but he says he thought of himself as fat.
At 6 feet 2 inches, Brian Cuban weighed about 180 pounds as a college freshman, but he says he thought of himself as fat.

  • Eating disorder group finds 10% to 15% of those with anorexia or bulimia are men
  • Stigma and shame still exists around male eating disorders, author says
  • Nearly a third of teen boys reportedly try to control weight through unhealthy methods

Editor’s note: Brian Cuban is the author of “Shattered Image,” which chronicles his experiences living with, and recovering from, eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder.

(CNN) — I used to stick my fingers down my throat after pigging out at the local buffet in Erie, Pennsylvania.

It was 1980, and I was a freshman in college. I had never heard the word bulimia. I had never heard the term eating disorder. Karen Carpenter had not yet died from complications from her battle with anorexia nervosa.

I just knew it made me feel good.

Throwing up made me feel normal. It told me I would finally be accepted and attractive the next day, that it would change the fat monster I saw in the mirror (at 6 feet 2 inches, I weighed about 180 pounds) to the guy who got the girl.

With each wretch, my mind flashed back to the fat 11-year-old boy who had his pants ripped off by classmates and thrown in the street, and who had been left to walk home in his underwear. But when the last of the pancakes were released from my body, and the evidence of my shame was cleaned from around the toilet, those thoughts disappeared for a few moments.

Then the guilt set in. The guilt of a “dirty secret” that I did not understand. I only understood that incredible, momentary high.

The subsequent guilt was as overwhelming as the high. I was a “man.” Men don’t throw up their meals. Men are not ashamed of their reflection in the mirror. Men don’t talk about their bodies, other than to boast of working out and large muscles. Men don’t have fat days.

Every day in my life was a fat day. In my mind I was completely alone, isolated by stigma and gender body stereotypes. To reveal myself would be to risk being called a “sissy” — to be made fun of and bullied as much as that 11-year-old child.

I had to have that high again to forget all that. I would continue to crave it for the next 27 years of my life: the life of a bulimic.

Through a 12-step, intensive therapy program, I was able to pull myself from the brink of the addiction and eating disorder abyss, make peace with my family and live a productive, happy life. Not everyone is that lucky.

The sad part is that the stigma and shame that once prevented me from seeking help in 1980 have not improved much over the last few decades. Many men still feel the need to stay silent about eating disorders. Despite the fact that 10% to 15% of people diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia are male, according to the National Eating Disorder Association, we still think it is a “women’s disease.”

It’s time for more men to step forward. We need strong voices to bring male eating disorders to the public’s attention and to open up treatment options. We need male celebrities to talk about these issues. We also need parents to talk about it with their kids; nearly one-third of teenage boys try to control their weight by skipping meals, vomiting and taking laxatives, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

I know that speaking out is easier said than done. It took me nearly 30 years to fight through my fear of ridicule, feminization and judgment before I finally told the world my secret.

But the biggest surprise about coming forward? When I did, I found only acceptance, caring and love. People wanted to help.

The societal stigma is, admittedly, something that will not go away overnight. But with every male who speaks up and lets others know they are not alone, more will find the courage to step up. Eventually I hope we reach a tipping point in which the media, including Hollywood, will portray men and women in a less gender-stereotyped manner.

There is power in numbers. As we step up, we will see more legislation introduced to provide better coverage for eating disorders. With that we will see an expansion of treatment options, which will lead to more funding and research for both male and female eating disorder sufferers.

Eventually we will have a better understanding of how to stop the crazy thoughts in their tracks and save lives.

Someone still has to be first. It can only happen one person at a time, one male at a time. Let’s start now.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Brian Cuban.


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