“Something I’ve never talked about in public before, but which I have come to terms with since leaving the band, is that I was suffering from an eating disorder.”
These are the powerful words Zayn Malik shares in his new autobiography, Zayn. That’s right: one of the most visible and popular male pop stars (a man of color, at that) has admitted to having issues with food. This is huge.
In an excerpt from the book posted by MTV on Tuesday, Malik admitted that his eating disorder was “quite serious,” exacerbated by the pressures of fame that came with being in the biggest boy band in the UK.
“It wasn’t as though I had any concerns about my weight or anything like that. I’d just go for days — sometimes two or three days straight — without eating anything at all,” Malik writes. “I think it was about control,” the singer added. “I didn’t feel like I had control over anything else in my life, but food was something I could control, so I did.”
The history of male celebrities speaking openly and honestly about having eating disorders is actually quite limited. In 1996, Silverchair singer Daniel Johns famously sang about his battle with anorexia in the hit single “Ana’s Song.” Elton John, Eminem, Russell Brand, actor Reid Ewing and Billy Bob Thornton have all been vocal in the past about struggles with disordered eating. But that’s just a handful of male stars.
Of the 30 million Americans who currently struggle with eating disorders, around 10 million of them are men, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. And the number is most likely larger ― far fewer men are diagnosed and treated for eating disorders than women, in part because of the shame and the stigma around seeking help, which is exacerbated for men.
In many ways, eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are seen overwhelmingly as white women’s diseases. What Zayn’s story has done is highlight the fact that many people are affected by disordered eating, and it doesn’t always have to do with wanting to be a size 2.
Of course, as iNews writer Eve Simmons points out, it shouldn’t take Zayn Malik to remind us that men struggle with eating disorders. But that doesn’t negate the importance of his admission, which signals to other men who might be struggling with disordered eating that they are not alone.
The idea that having an eating disorder, or anxiety, or any other kind of mental illness is a result of being weak creates a harmful narrative.
What’s significant about Zayn’s story is the fact that he’s acknowledged that he didn’t even know what he was experiencing was an eating disorder.
“It got quite serious, although at the time I didn’t recognize it for what it was,” the singer writes in his memoir.
He was able to recover after leaving One Direction, and the “pressures and strains” of life on the road. But the fact that he was unable to recognize what he was dealing with, and unable (or unwilling) to seek help, even as he became physically ill from drastic weight loss in 2014, is a testament to the ways in which our skewed ideas about masculinity and manhood continue to prevent men with eating disorders from getting better.
The idea that having an eating disorder, or anxiety, or any other kind of mental illness is a result of being weak creates a harmful narrative, which paints eating disorders as sicknesses that are all about female vanity, insecurity and weakness. Not only does this distort from the realities of what women with eating disorders go through, but it also effectively erases people who don’t fit the “mold” of said narrative ― namely men and people of color.
What Zayn’s admission has done, in its own small way, is shift this narrative. By coming forward, he’s helping to change the way we think about and talk about eating disorders.