National Eating Disorders Association
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You Look Great: Battling Bullying and Eating Disorders as a Man

Justin Andrew Davis

Somewhere on the New Jersey Parkway, my friend’s dad looks in the rearview mirror - looks me in the eyes - and says, “Car’s running a little slow today, eh, Justin?” It’s a middle school summer: I’m a year or two into a five-year affair with braces, I’m learning to skateboard and play guitar, and I’m growing more and more uncomfortable in my body. Here, age eleven or twelve, I’m already deeply insecure about my round cheeks and belly, and an adult is casually shining a spotlight on everything I want to hide.  

C and I sit silently in the backseat as his mom scolds his dad in a language I don’t understand. I have no idea what they’re saying, but it’s clear she felt the sting of his words and it’s clear he doesn’t know what she’s making a fuss about. The arguing stops as quickly as it started and he looks again in the rearview mirror. He shakes his head and smirks.  

I was a child, and as a child, I didn’t have the language necessary to defend myself. But even if I could articulate the pain I was experiencing, how much courage would it take for me to tell an adult that this was unacceptable and cruel, that he didn’t have a right to criticize or make jokes about my body? Even now, as a man, establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries is a high hurdle to clear on a daily basis. So you can imagine how that boy, engrossed in video games and books, struggling with kickflips and the intro to “Say It Ain’t So,” on his way to what was supposed to be a fun afternoon in the city, stood little to no chance. 

So what’s a kid to do? Here, or in gym class, or at sleepovers, or on beach vacations with family friends? Laugh. Because you can’t feel bad if you’re in on the joke. Say nothing. Because they can’t sustain their mocking if they don’t know whether or not they got to you. Change the subject. Because you can’t keep getting attacked when you’re all busy playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, or looking at WWF magazines, or trading Pokémon cards. You simply do any short-term solution your boy-brain can cobble together, because the only other option is giving voice to your hurt. And voicing your hurt means you’re weak. Voicing your hurt means you’re losing. Voicing your hurt means you’re not a man.  

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Historically, eating disorders have been associated with women, so I, as a heterosexual white man, felt obligated to keep quiet. Because one, women have been scrutinized and subjected to impossible standards and ideals in the media for far longer, and two, as a man, “no one cares how you look,” “you’re allowed to get away with it.” Who cares about my pain, I thought.  

All to say, I felt unentitled to my story, and womanly for even having it in the first place. But here's the thing: eating disorders, as with so many mental health issues, don’t discriminate against age, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. We are all wired with potential and risk. Which is why I felt so compelled to create You Look Great, a short film I wrote, directed, and starred in that narratively examined my relationship with exercise, food, and body image as a man, as a man with eating disorders.  

The number of men I’ve met at film festivals who spoke with me and shared their experiences - all across the demographic spectrum - was breathtaking. I felt heartened, finally, to connect with others and truly realize I wasn’t alone in this hurt. In these fleeting moments, I felt seen.  

More importantly, I felt motivated.  

Our current idea of masculinity and strength needs immediate dismantling, as does the facet of our culture where weight is stigmatized and feared, where people feel as though they are allowed to joke about or voice their opinion on the bodies of others. This notion that boys and men are impermeable to the emotional daggers of bullying is not only misconceived and dangerous, it perpetuates silence.  

Bullying was a significant contributing factor to my ruptured relationship with my body and mind. It is, in my opinion, imperative that teachers, parents, peers, and professionals recognize malicious rhetoric when it is aimed at anyone’s body or appearance and stop it. As well as check themselves before offering compliments and congratulations for weight loss, which has its own set of toxic, albeit unintentional, consequences. By fostering an environment where such behaviors are universally condemned or checked, as well as one where men feel accepted and safe to admit their struggles and pain, we can create a more empathetic society.  

I don’t have the step by step system for us to follow starting today, but we must at least start the process with hard, honest, and compassionate conversations - which NEDA and its partner organizations are so wonderfully starting here.   

We all deserve an escape from the prison of gender expectations. We all deserve to feel at home in our bodies. We all deserve healing. 

And we will have it. All of us.  

Justin Andrew Davis is an actor, writer, and filmmaker based in New York City. Recently, Justin's first feature film - Myth - was released on Amazon Prime, where he can be seen as lead character Alex, alongside co-stars Nicholas Tucci and Sadie Scott. You Look Great - a short film he wrote, directed, and starred in based on his personal experiences with eating disorders - has played at numerous festivals in New York City and across the country. The film has earned him several prestigious awards and continues to start conversations in arts and entertainment communities as well as academia.

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