I’ve been with my boyfriend for about three years now, and lately I’ve been noticing some strange behaviors I’ve never seen before. I’m not saying it’s definitely because he experienced a family tragedy six months ago, but that is when I started to notice it more often. He’s become extremely obsessed with his “health” – although it seems extremely unhealthy what he’s doing. He’s been eating close to nothing, and when he does eat it’s raw vegetables or something like that. He has been avoiding going out to eat like we always used to and is constantly talking about his weight (even though he’s in great shape for a 20-year-old male). I’m not sure if he’s been throwing up after he eats, because since this has all started I’ve been seeing him less and less – but I suspect it. He’s always been healthy and would run a few times a week, but now he’s skipping classes or other important things to go to the gym for extended periods of time every day. He constantly stares in the mirror and complains about being fat while pinching his non-existent stomach. Our sex life is dwindling; he’s very rarely in the mood to do anything, and anytime I address it in relation to his eating habits he freaks out and leaves the room. It’s killing our relationship, not to mention the fact that now he picks on me and what I eat! He’s never showed anything less than satisfaction with me and my body, but now will comment on how I look in certain clothes or when I’m eating something sweet. I’d say I’m pissed off but I’m too worried to be mad – I think he needs help but I don’t know what to do.
Starving for Affection
Dear Starving for Affection,
I’m very sorry for the situation you’re in right now. Unfortunately, it’s something that many of us go through – we see that a loved one close to us has a problem, and we don’t have a clue what’s wrong or how we can fix it. Unfortunately, when it comes to issues of eating disorders or body image issues, there is little we can do for them.
Fortunately, you made the right first step – looking for help. Many of us see people around us suffering for one reason or another, and because it’s too big or complex for us to handle, we try to ignore it and hope that someone else will step up, or that it will get better on its own. And for most people, it only gets worse.
I am not a doctor or therapist, but maybe I can shed some light on this matter and strongly urge you to contact a professional.
There seems to be several things going on here – your boyfriend is obsessed with his body image, his self-image is unrealistic and he is showing extremely unhealthy eating patterns. It is unfortunate that many people who know your boyfriend may neglect to see that he has a problem.
He’s simply getting into great shape and working out, they might say. Because anorexia, bulimia and eating disorders in general are associated with young women, people tend to not see it when, for instance, an older woman or young man are displaying dangerous symptoms.
In reality, eating disorders and body image issues can affect anyone, and they affect more people than we realize. Even though not every person goes to the lengths that your boyfriend does to regulate their bodies, obsession about weight, muscle, looks, flab, dieting, compulsive eating and control are everywhere.
Becoming satisfied with our less-than-perfect bodies seems to be nearly impossible in the face of today’s media and culture. In the United States, we tend to exaggerate the importance of having a perfect body. According to movies, television, books and the news, certain “looks” are prized and others are shamed.
Society defines success not only by accomplishments like getting a good job and being healthy and happy, but as also being effortlessly flab-less.
If we’re not born with the genetic predisposition to have rock hard abs and killer glutes, society reminds us that this can be easily fixed (for a price). If we don’t have the time to go to the gym or the self-control to eat healthy, they give us other “options.” Everything from liposuction to tummy-tucks to teeth whitening to calf implants to anorexia is available to get us closer to perfect.
It’s very sad, and it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, there are things that point to progress. For instance, Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” in which images of women of all shapes, sizes, colors, ages and races are used to portray real beauty, is an encouraging development
Surprisingly, even the modeling industry is showing progress.
In Madrid, there has been a BMI (body mass index) cutoff for women – if they are too thin and too unhealthy, they will be turned away. Thirty percent of last year’s participants in Fashion Week have already been rejected.
Unfortunately, these are the exceptions. And everything I say here applies to both men and women – the pressure is very strong for men to have big pecs and thin waists just as it is for women to have protruding collarbones and hip bones. Although your boyfriend’s experience may appear to be different than a 14-year-old girl who binges and purges, it’s really not too different at all.
In fact, they are identical in that they are about control. Everybody deals with grief and pain in different ways. People who are abused by a spouse are more likely to display unhealthy behaviors, and victims of sexual assault are more likely to develop eating disorders. In instances like these, or something like your boyfriend’s loss of a family member, people can feel like they have no sense of control over their lives and the world they live in.
This fear can turn into obsession and culminate in dangerous behaviors like self-mutilation or anorexia. A cutter can control his flow of blood; a bulimic can control what goes in and out of his body, even if he can’t control the weather or the abuser.
Like you said, your boyfriend’s family tragedy may not necessarily be a sole cause, but it may have caused the break. Since he had been invested in physical fitness before, his healthy behaviors may have intensified during his grieving period to a dangerous level.
And taking in all of the other stresses of college life – peer pressure about drinking, drugs and sex; heavy course loads; trying to balance a social life and academics; trying to figure out a major, career and future – it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
I’m sure this hurts you. As his partner, you see yourself as the safe place where he should be seeking this comfort. You feel like he should be opening up to you, asking you for help but it’s not that easy.
It’s hard to admit you have a problem to someone you love, someone you don’t want to see your flaws. Your boyfriend is dealing with so much inner turmoil and struggle that he is pushing away the very people he loves the most.
As much as you want to confront him, hold him or fix him, you can’t do it on your own. In fact, trying to do those things may just tear apart anything that you have. There is nothing wrong with admitting that you need help – I mean you, not him. Talk to your family, Community Advisors or Psychological Counseling Services. There are countless resources, organizations, counselors, hotlines and hospitals that deal with this issue.
And this issue is serious. Any survivor can tell you about the battle they fight every day in recovery. Unfortunately, some people can’t speak, because their disease claimed their life.
I’m not saying this to scare you, but simply to urge you, and anyone who is worried or suspicious of a friend, to reach out to a professional who is trained and can help.
You’ll be in my thoughts and I hope your boyfriend gets the help he needs.