Tayshia Adams' season of The Bachelorette had a rocky start — remember Clare and Dale? But now, it's shaping up to be one of the best seasons yet, filled with deep, meaningful conversations involving George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, addiction, and now, eating disorders. In last night's episode, contestant Ben Smith opened up about his past struggles with disordered eating and bulimia during his one-on-one time with the Bachelorette herself.
"The life I've lived is different than what you might assume," he said. "I don't want to lay all this on you, but the reason I'm in fitness and nutrition [is because] I had an eating disorder for 15 years."
He said his disordered eating began around age 15, when he became interested in girls and "realized they don't like the fat kid. So, I stopped eating, I started working out all the time, lost like, 70 pounds, and had bulimia for like, 10 years when I was in my 20s." He described the strain the condition put on him. "It's hard to hide something for so long. I kept it from everybody," Smith said.
According to Smith, this was the first time he's been open about his struggles from someone other than his sister, who he says saved his life. "I'm finally at a place now where I feel safe and comfortable," he told Adams. "I care a great deal about this, it's just hard for me to let it out."
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders will affect 10 million cis-men in the United States at some point in their lives. And this group is much less likely to seek treatment for their eating disorder, largely due to cultural bias. "Males represent 25% of individuals with anorexia nervosa, and they are at a higher risk of dying, in part because they are often diagnosed later since many people assume males don’t have eating disorders," the website states.
Opening up the conversation can help de-stigmatize cis-male eating disorders, explains Chelsea Kronengold, the manager of communications at the National Eating Disorders Association. "The media perpetuates that eating disorders really only impact young, white, thin, often affluent women, and we know that's not the case," she tells Refinery29. "Anyone can be affected by an eating disorder. So whenever you hear of somebody, especially a public figure that doesn't meet that stereotype, it's a really great way to break down that stigma and barriers and help other people potentially see themselves in that story."
Tom Wooldridge, assistant professor of psychology at Golden Gate University who specializes in eating disorders, agrees. "I do indeed think that his willingness to speak openly will help others, both because it signals that yes, eating disorders are a problem that males struggle with, and because it conveys that recovery from these painful, even deadly, difficulties is possible," he tells Refinery29.
Kronengold points out that there may be other cis-men watching the episode who have also experienced this, but never had the language to realize they had an eating disorder. "Through media, through pop culture, having these great examples really does make a difference," she says.
Smith offered this message in his Dec. 2 appearance on Good Morning America: "I would challenge people that are struggling to understand that it might be challenging and difficult, but reach out to somebody." It is possible to recover from disordered eating — and the first step is to acknowledge what's happening and ask for help.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorder Information Centre hotline at 1-866-633-4220.