A Story to Tell



A Story to Tell, or: Regarding Male Eating Disorders aspires to break the taboo surrounding eating disorders and break away from the stereotype that only girls and women are affected by the mental health condition. Over the course of one year, photographer Mafalda Rakoš followed eleven men affected by anorexia, bulimia or binge eating. Having overcome an eating disorder herself, Rakoš created this project hoping to provide insight into how it feels to experience an eating disorder as a boy or man.

Whenever eating disorders have been addressed in public debate and media, the conversation has predominantly focussed on the experiences of girls and women. Globally, 2.2% of men struggle with an eating disorder at least once in their lifetime. The lack of visibility and shame experienced by this demographic causes experts to fear that the number of unreported cases is notably higher. By sharing their personal stories, and their journeys to recovery and self-acceptance, the eleven men portrayed want to demonstrate that everyone can be affected by an eating disorder.

Rakoš’s photographic process always starts with a conversation. What does the internal working of your mind look like? What are you feeling, seeing, thinking, hearing, tasting, smelling? Where shall we go to try and capture that on camera? The stories shared in A Story to Tell, or: Regarding Male Eating Disorders were often shocking. Never shying away from the hardship or discomfort, together with co-initiator and journalist Ruben de Theije, Mafalda Rakoš persisted in seeking to touch on the issues that dwell at the intersection of social expectations and raw emotions. Rakoš unearths the pain that lies at the heart of these stories; stories that the protagonists wanted to share, in the hope of catalysing a shift and further nuance in the conversation about eating disorders.


Elias (22), from Austria
When I was in high school, a new girl enrolled. We went on school camp, and all the classes were merged. I was extremely thin on this school trip. The new girl was also very thin. Rumors were circulating: “She has anorexia.” At a certain point a friend came up to me: “Elias, do you also have anorexia?” The question sounded ridiculous in my head, but before I could answer her question, another friend stepped in and said: “No, of course not!” Probably referring to the general belief that boys can't get anorexia.

I denied it. I didn’t even know it myself at that point, even though I had always been very underweight. Honestly, it’s hard to say when it even started. It accompanied my entire childhood. As a kid, I never learned normal eating habits. My parents would cook something with green beans and my brother would say: “That’s green stuff, I don’t eat that.” It made me notice that if I’d refuse to eat what’s on the table, I’d gain attention.

Of course, my parents talked to teachers, gave me lunch boxes and brought me to the doctor. Again and again. But the doctor never intervened drastically. She didn’t see it as anorexia and only threatened me by saying: “If you reduce your diet, I will send you to the hospital, where you will be fed with infusions.” Only years later, after my high school graduation, I finally got the diagnosis: anorexia nervosa.

I think it’s difficult for both men and women. However, anorexia has this gynaecological stigma — even though it’s absolute nonsense. It makes it harder to openly talk about it as a man. For instance, I’ve never seen other men at the waiting room of my treatment center. Just the skeptical glances of other people directed towards me. I joined A Story to Tell because I wanted to create awareness that an eating disorder goes beyond the boundaries of gender or age. It can affect everyone.
Thomas (22), from the Netherlands
I didn’t belong anywhere. Because of my anorexia, I didn’t belong with regular people. And because I’m a man, I didn’t belong to the anorexic group. Anorexia is considered to be a “girly” disease. Because of this, I’ve felt pretty lonely. I think that people don’t see it. Well, doctors and nurses, they signalized it. But people in my surroundings didn’t. Or they didn’t want to see it... I don’t know. They just never associated anorexia with me. This made it easier for me to deny everything in the beginning. I wanted to deny it.

My anorexia gradually started when I was in my last year of primary school. Being skinny became a competition for me: I wanted to be the thinnest. I was depressed because of my traumas, and eating less — later combined with extensively working out — started to feel like something I was actually good at. I was still at a healthy weight, but from this point it slowly got worse.

Anorexia has a double feeling for me. On one hand it’s the worst thing ever, on the other hand it’s the best thing. Currently, it mostly feels like it’s the worst, but sometimes it’s still the opposite. Sometimes I do miss the feeling; I miss my anorexia. Because it’s a coping mechanism, it actually made me feel better and less depressed. It’s difficult to explain this. When you don’t eat for four days, that’s an amazing feeling. It’s an achievement. Your whole body is screaming for food, but you’re able to resist. These suppressive and numb feelings turn into euphoria. Anorexia is definitely an addiction. But I’m hopeful that in the future I’ll continue to crawl out of the deep dark trenches of skin, bones and empty plates.
Ramon (28), from the Netherlands

All my life, I’ve had difficulties with the question: “Who am I?” It’s probably a huge cause of my anorexia. This search for identity also expressed itself in my clothing style. I’ve had many different phases throughout the years: emo, gothic, skater. It took me a long time to realize that I feel most comfortable in my current clothes. I know I look extraordinary and not like a “stereotypical guy,” but I feel comfortable in it. I like wearing make-up. It gives me confidence.

Above all, I feel like people have always seen me as an object. At school, for instance, the other kids bullied me a lot. In the fourth grade of primary school, I screamed that I wanted to die. I wanted to be kicked out of school; I couldn’t take it anymore. This damaged me a lot. Even at high school and pre-vocational secondary education, it continued. All this, combined with me always being insecure, trying to please people and putting myself at the lowest level, has caused my eating disorder. But also sad incidents in my life. For example, my mom had a miscarriage when I was nineteen years old. It made me feel unbelievably down and made the eating disorder stronger. 

Also about my homosexuality. I found the idea of being gay weird. I came out of the closet when I was eighteen years old, but before it had been such a struggle in my head. Maybe this contributed to the eating disorder too.
Leroy (20), from Germany

I was twelve or thirteen and my hormones started to jump up. I was physically born as a girl and I hated it. It felt like my environment wanted to push me into a role I didn’t want to embody. I felt uncomfortable hanging out with girls. I didn’t care about ponies or clothes; I didn’t want to wear a bra. It made me a bit radical and I became extremely gothic. I lived for writing and wrote a lot of fiction stories. My characters were always male. I felt comfortable with them. My environment found it weird and started to lock me out. They bullied me, hated me. I was a “weird girl.”

I couldn’t be like a boy, so apparently it had to be like this. I adjusted. Somehow I forced myself to grow into this girly role. I started to constantly compare myself with other girls. I had to become thinner, always. I started to exercise more. I later showed bulimic rinsing behavior. It was successful, because I lost weight.

My dad was terminally ill. His situation got worse, so I had to stay more at my mom and stepdad’s place. Even when I was sick, I’d go to school. My mom found this very strong. They praised me for suppressing my emotions and excelling in school. I thought: “Ok, so if I hide my feelings, don’t cry anymore, don’t be sad and not even angry, then I’ll become better.”

This role I played, including the eating disorder, was the only thing I got compliments and attention for. In 2015, it became worse. I lost a group of friends and after that it certainly went downhill. My anorexia and bulimia became worse. I wound up in a serious depression. I created an ultimatum: I only allowed myself to eat if I’d commit suicide afterwards. Because if I ate I’d fail in this role. I’d lose my only value in life. I thought about suicide constantly and even tried it once, but failed.

I realized that my female side is my eating disorder, and my masculine side is my true self. It feels like my body has been pressed into the wrong size for far too long. The right size has been hidden behind my back. I hope I won’t struggle with the eating disorder anymore, when the transition to a man has been completed fully.
Teun (29), from the Netherlands

In my sessions, I often speak with men who feel ashamed. I’m a therapist at Stichting Human Concern, the biggest Dutch mental health organization specializing in eating disorders. I treat both males and females. Once I had a man in therapy who could barely speak the words “eating disorder.” Saying these words, and linking them to himself, already brought up a lot of resistance, shame and emotion.

For him, it was helpful to have a male therapist. I told him about my own history with OSFED. It’s an eating disorder in which traits of anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders overlap. My own experiences made this client realize that he wasn’t the only man suffering from an eating disorder. This realization often helps male clients to defeat the shame. Also the idea of “not being masculine” has appeared a couple of times. It’s the overall question: What is a man? For them, men are “strong,” and displaying vulnerability does not fit this image. A man shouldn’t show emotions.

This is a widely perceived stigma in society. It’s almost as if men are not allowed to have eating disorders. I mean, look at the media articles about anorexia: at the top there’s always an image of a woman. This is also how I perceived it myself, which resulted in a late recognition of my own OSFED. It’s dangerous: for guys it’s like being affected makes you “less masculine.” I honestly think the overwhelming majority of men with eating disorders are still invisible. They’re under-diagnosed because of the stigma, or they feel too ashamed to acknowledge their own problems. And even in an earlier stage: they’ve never learned to talk about emotions, eating or compensation rules and how this affects their lives. It must be a lonely world for them. They deserve to be seen.

To all the guys who are not diagnosed yet, but are struggling with an eating disorder, I advise this: start talking. It’s a piece of advice I wish I had received during my struggle. Talk about your feelings, your emotions, your thoughts. Find a safe person in your group of friends or family, or maybe somebody who is further outside of your environment. You don’t have to tell your whole life story at once. You can just start with small worries or thoughts. But the more you don’t talk, the more you allow your eating disorder to grow.

    Are you doubting, struggling or worried about having an eating disorder yourself? Are you worried about someone in your environment, or do you just need advice? In the Netherlands you can reach out to Human Concern, Stichting Anorexia Jongens, Stichting MIND, other mental health organizations or just your local doctor. They can help you with any question.


      For more information about the project or book A Story to Tell, or: Regarding Male Eating Disorders, visit their website.

      This project is made possible by Melkweg Expo and the Mondriaan Fund, and especially by the courage of its protagonists: Ramon, Thomas, Teun, Brian, Matthijs, Elias, Leroy, Florian, Daniel, Markus and Ron from Anorexia Jongens.

      Interviews by Ruben de Theije
      Website design by
      Peter van Langen
      Text editor: Roxy Merrell