As a man with an eating disorder, I never felt anorexic 'enough'

You might be surprised to hear that blokes get eating disorders (EDs).

But Christopher Ecclestone, Billy Bob Thornton and Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill have all had anorexia. Elton John, racing driver David Coulthard and Russell Brand have all had bulimia.

That’s not to mention Eminem and Zayn Malik, who have both revealed they have suffered with EDs as well.

In fact, men were recognised as suffering from anorexia as early as the 17th century (which debunks another myth – that EDs are a modern phenomenon fuelled by Instagram).

My own journey with anorexia began when I was a teenager. I remember nipping home from school during break to weigh myself. This wasn’t triggered by any one particular thing – it developed as a subliminal response to feeling overwhelmed by exams, coursework and making decisions about what I was going to do with my life.

Then I began heading home at lunch, too. Sometimes I’d even skip lessons just to go and see what my weight was.

To make the scales drop lower and lower I became obsessed with food, constantly totting up my daily calorie count. I was increasingly distracted but I didn’t think it abnormal behaviour – in fact, it seemed normal to me. I felt that if I could control my weight, I’d be able to get a grip on everything else.

As I began to starve, my mood became progressively erratic. I began to avoid socialising for fear of having to eat, or being terrible company.

Then there was the exercising. At first, it was just walking. Then it became running. Then it became swimming. Soon I had a daily routine of sit ups, press ups and squats on top of that.

But it was never about looking good, which can be a common misconception around EDs, especially with men. It wasn’t even about the weight, calories or working out.

For me, it was about achievement when everything else around me felt unachievable. It was about what all that stuff stood for – success, coping, and ‘improving’. If I could be ‘good’ at this, I thought, then everything else would fall into place.

Over time, it developed as a coping mechanism that I turned to when things got a bit overwhelming. If I didn’t get the grade I wanted on an English exam, for example, I could restrict food longer, exercise more and feel better by getting a little ‘win’ on the scales.

I was soon struggling to sleep, my skin was always dry so I’d scratch my legs until they bled, and my stomach was constantly cramping. I had massive mood swings, was always exhausted and constantly anxious. I was using my body to show that there was something wrong with my mind.

My parents and close friends did notice and made the occasional comment about my weight loss but to me, an ‘eating disorder’ felt far too dramatic to describe what I was doing. It took nearly a decade for me to ask for help.

When I finally recognised I had a problem I was 23 and too scared to go to the GP because I never felt ‘anorexic enough’. He diagnosed me as severely clinically anorexic however, and I entered into two and a half years of treatment.

I was lucky that I never encountered any prejudice about my ED because of my gender – although I know other men do.

This isn’t to say I wasn’t conscious of it. I became acutely aware of EDs being a ‘female’ issue when I went to a group therapy session.

The girl I’d been dating had just been dumped me. I was feeling lonely and vulnerable. I was the only man in a room full of women who’d never met a bloke with anorexia – it felt more like speed dating than therapy.

But I know now I’m not alone. According to Beat, 6.4 per cent of adults show signs of an ED and NHS Digital data analysed by The Guardian in 2017 revealed that the number of adult men being hospitalised with an ED had increased by 70 per cent over the previous six years – matching the rise among women.

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental health issue, with one person in the US dying as a direct result of an ED every 62 minutes.

My mental health is not the best at the moment and I’m still looking for better, healthier ways to manage the things life throws at us all, but I no longer measure myself by numbers on a scale.

I don’t think I’d ever relapse now because I have more of an understanding of this illness – I would feel almost selfish to go back to that.

In fact, I feel further away from anorexia now than I have done in years. Ironically I’m now technically overweight, and I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing.

It’s easy to trot out over-used if well-meaning phrases like ‘just talk about it’ but those sentiments may be too vague to get men – or indeed anyone with an ED – the help they need.

If I went to my GP with a pain in my stomach I’d use words like ‘sharp’, ‘dull’, ‘thudding’. Explaining anorexia is like trying to explain a ‘pain’ in your brain – I am now recovered from my ED and I still don’t know where to even start to explain that.

I would like to see a shift in perceptions of what we think EDs are, and a real understanding of them as a mental illness.

To do this we need to give people the tools to explain their emotions, understand emotional intelligence and treat mental and physical health with equal value.

You wouldn’t expect someone to just ‘get fit’ without explaining what that meant, so you can’t expect people to ‘just talk’ without giving some guidance on mental education.

But until we get there, if you’re reading this and you are struggling, support is out there. You don’t have to battle alone. You can recover. I did, and now I want to help others do the same.

Dave Chawner’s book Weight Expectations: One Man’s Recovery from Anorexia is available here.

Find support

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, you can get in touch with the national eating disorders charity Beat by calling 0808 0801 0677 or through their website at

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