Reflecting on my past is something I’m accustomed to, but when I would do this before, I always reflected on the negative. It’s comfortable for me to think about all the challenges I went through—not easy, but comfortable. From my eating disorder, to my body image struggles, to my depression, I was comfortable living in that space; after all, those things were part of my identity. However, this past year something changed, and for the first time ever I feel proud of who I was before, who I am now, and what I’ve accomplished. Getting to this new “proud” place was uncomfortable.
When I started my eating disorder advocacy work back in 2016, my friends would often ask me, “Ryan, aren’t you embarrassed to share some of the darkest moments of your life?”. Truthfully, I would get embarrassed—embarrassed at what others would think—and that’s why I never really completely shared who I was. It was last NEDA Awareness Week when something changed: the week’s theme “Come As You Are” happened.
I never spoke about my depression, my sexuality, my real struggles with body image, and the way I felt about myself. I didn’t understand why I should share that. I thought that I would be judged, and that people wouldn’t be able to relate. When I learned Come As You Are was last year’s theme I thought, “Why not? Why not take that risk and come as I am, as authentically as possible?”
I took the plunge head first, and just did it. I started to talk about my sexuality, my struggles, and how I still struggle at times. Sure enough, it was then I started to feel like I was able to connect. Wow, being my authentic self was allowing me to connect to not only to other people but to myself. I remember thinking, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?”
I didn’t want to play the victim role, I just wanted to share my truth. And that’s exactly what I did.
During this time, I felt as if I was in uncharted waters. I honestly had no clue what I was doing, but, at the same time, people were connecting with me. I couldn’t believe it. I can’t express how freeing that was. At the same time, I acknowledge my privilege, and I am so grateful that my friends and family have been supportive. Sadly, that isn’t always the case.
This year’s theme, Come As You Are: Hindsight is 20/20, means a lot to me. While I’ve thought about where I would be now had I started living my authentic self years ago, I’m glad I didn’t. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready for the world to know who I really was. I wasn’t ready to accept who I really was.
Being able to share my story—my real story—has been life changing. I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Before, when I would post on Instagram stories, I would always make sure I looked a certain way—that my hair was perfect, that I looked perfect—and that was exhausting. I couldn’t fathom the thought of what others may think about me if I didn’t look good in a photo, if my love handles were showing, if I looked too “fat.” Now those worries about what other people think are going away.
I don’t want you to think that I don’t still struggle, because I do, After all, I’m human. But now, after 31 years, I feel so comfortable in my skin.
For all of you out there reading this, if you are feeling the same way—that you can’t live your most authentic life—I assure you one day you will get to a place where you can. It’s not easy. It’s still not easy for me at times. But it’s possible.
Remember, it’s in our moments of struggle when change can happen.
A motivational speaker and brawn model, Ryan has been educating audiences about body image and binge eating disorder since his own diagnosis in 2015. Passionate about raising awareness of binge eating and body image issues as an Ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association, he has shared his story with the Today Show, Huffington Post, and Teen Vogue, among other outlets. An LGBTQ+ man living in a larger body, Ryan also speaks to teens about masculinity, identity, and body confidence. He is currently working on a book about his and other men’s experiences learning to eat mindfully and love themselves just as they are. You can find Ryan on Instagram at BingeEaterConfessions or at theryansheldon.com.