Ed Sheeran, 32, revealed last week in a Rolling Stone interview that he has dealt with an eating disorder as a result of working in the entertainment industry and constantly being compared to other male stars.
“I’m self-conscious anyway, but you get into an industry where you’re getting compared to every other pop star,” Sheeran said. “I was in the One Direction wave, and I’m like, ‘Well, why don’t I have a six pack?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, because you love kebabs and drink beer.’ Then you do songs with Justin Bieber and Shawn Mendes. All these people have fantastic figures. And I was always like, ‘Well, why am I so … fat?’ “
Elton John, too, has spoken about dealing with an eating disorder in the entertainment business. In his 2019 memoir, “Me,” John reflected on living with bulimia. Sheeran realized he was dealing with the same cycles of binging and purging as his music mentor.
“There’s certain things that, as a man talking about them, I feel mad uncomfortable,” Sheeran added. “I know people are going to see it a type of way, but it’s good to be honest about them. Because so many people do the same thing and hide it as well.”
Men struggling with eating disorders get far less support and treatment than women in similar situations. When stars like Sheeran speak out, it changes the conversation for the better, experts say.
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Bulimia nervosa and the prevalence of eating disorder
Though Sheeran did not name his eating disorder, the act of binging eating large amounts of food followed by purging is known as bulimia nervosa.
Those with the eating disorder can fall within the normal range for their weight but still experience serious discomfort with their bodies and “want desperately to lose weight,” the National Institutes of Health explains.
Per National Institutes of Health data, bulimia is five times more prevalent in women than in men. But the medical world has long had a bias toward studying and treating women for eating disorders and body image issues, leaving out men despite evidence they struggle with them too. Ten million men in the U.S. will have an eating disorder during their lifetime, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
And Stuart Murray, a psychiatry professor and director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of Southern California, points to a 2022 study in medical journal JAMA Pediatrics that shows that disordered eating behaviors among adolescents affected boys as much as girls.
“If it’s more acceptable for girls to talk about this than boys, we’re going to confine boys to what can become a chronic illness and reduce the window for treatment,” Murray says. “What Ed Sheeran is doing is normalizing the conversation.”
How Ed Sheeran’s vulnerability helps others
Other men in the public eye who have revealed eating disorders include One Direction alum Zayn Malik, comedian Russell Brand, late singer Aaron Carter, former Penn State kicker Joey Julius and actor Dennis Quaid, who once described what he was experiencing as “manorexia.”
“We don’t always think of men having the same pressures to conform to appearances the way we think about women, but celebrities in particular are subject to high rates of critique without their permission,” says Lauren Smolar, vice president of mission and education at the National Eating Disorders Association. “This constant evaluation of body changes can put a lot of unfair pressure on men to maintain an appearance – even through unhealthy behaviors to ‘keep up’ with society’s expectations.”
Not only can negative comments about a celebrity’s body hurt the person in question, it can reach the eyes and ears of people who gather that if the star’s body isn’t good enough, neither is theirs.
Murray notes that men in particular face two conflicting body image messages: the need to be both thin and muscular, perpetuated in part by body-building celebrities who share dangerous ideals about overexerting workouts and strict diets followed by disordered “cheat day” meals.
“A lot of people develop eating disorders … because they can’t cope with the social comparison because the ideals are unrealistic,” Murray says.
Sheeran’s choice to vocalize his experience has the ability to empower other men who felt alone in their struggles.
“Ed Sheeran is a guy that’s really, really talented and is revered by millions of people,” Murray says. “If he’s willing to talk about this in a way that’s accepting others, it can really penetrate this clandestine culture where guys don’t talk about this stuff. … This is a pretty big deal and I’m really thrilled he’s taking the step to do this.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, the National Eating Disorders Association’s toll-free and confidential helpline is available by phone or text at 1-800-931-2237 or by click-to-chat message at nationaleatingdisorders.org/helpline. For 24/7 crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741-741.
Contributing: David Oliver
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