This month’s cover, Ryan Sheldon, is not just a model but is an eating disorder and body image activist as well.
It wasn’t until I spoke to Ryan Sheldon during our #myplusjourney that I realized how much I didn’t know about how MEN feel about their bodies and how eating disorders are affecting so many of us both young and older alike.
Maddy: We often don’t talk about topics such as body image, eating disorders (ED) and self-confidence among men. In speaking with you, I realized there is so much we should be doing to support and bring awareness. Can you share with us your journey through your particular eating disorder?
Ryan Sheldon: I can remember as a child, hating my body. At one point, everything about my body, I hated. I was on my first diet at the age of 12, Weight Watchers, my mom encouraged it.
“The National Eating Disorders Association reports that 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting and that 20-25% of those individuals develop eating disorders.”
The love/hate relationship I had with food and my negative body image felt normal to me. In fact, I thought most people felt the same way as I did about their bodies and about food.
When I turned 16, I decided to lose weight. I spent the next two years reducing my calorie and sugar intake and journaled everything I ate. My food habits with good intentions consumed me. The fixations on my weight, food intake and body image became my obsessions.
When I entered college and moved away from home, I was free from the scrutiny of my mother who watched and commented on every piece of food I put in my mouth.
I knew she loved me very much and just wanted what was best for me but over the years, I developed a shameful attitude towards eating. At college, I lost weight when everyone else gained the “Freshman 15” but after my weight went down, it went up, down, and then up again. I was caught in a vicious cycle of bingeing, then restricting, followed by overexercising.
Many of my eating rituals were done in secrecy.
For example, I would go to dinner at a friend’s house and after we ate, I would go to the bathroom to call in a food order that I’d pick up and eat on my way home. I hid my actions because I thought my friends would say, “How can you be hungry, we just ate dinner”. The reality is that ordering food was not related to my hunger but it had everything to do with a voice in my head, this overwhelming anxiety if I didn’t order that food. My inner voice was like a bully, it kept reminding me of how worthless I was and bingeing was a way to calm that voice.
I got into a relationship with someone who had an eating disorder who also bullied me. I got tired of hearing, “Ryan, why don’t you have a 6 pack like my last boyfriend did”. At the time I thought this was acceptable, I thought I deserved to be body shamed, probably due to my low self-esteem.
During this time I went to my primary care doctor and she told me I had to lose weight, she prescribed diet pills but they didn’t work because my bingeing had nothing to do with my hunger. I continued to binge.
There’s a misconception that people who struggle with Binge Eating Disorder just eat a lot but that’s not totally true, I was consumed by the thought of food, I would actually wake up in the middle of the night and open the refrigerator just to look at the food and go back to bed.
Since the diet pills didn’t work and I was so desperate to stop my bingeing that I would take sleeping pills during the day so that I wouldn’t binge. I went to my doctor 30 days later and jumped on that dreaded scale and she congratulated me on my weight loss, take into mind the amount of weight I lost should’ve taken me 3-4 months to lose.
My eating disorder consumed me. I had to quit my job, I was going into debt, and I was isolating myself from my friends. No one knew what I was going through. I think people don’t fully grasp how eating disorders can take over your life. I was obsessed with the scale, I would weigh myself 18 times a day until I had to throw it out. At one point I covered all of my mirrors because I hated to look at myself in the mirror.
I was diagnosed with my eating disorder in 2015 and I think it’s fair to say that I thought the diagnosis was the cure but that wasn’t the case.
I actually brought the words “Eating Disorder” to my therapist at the time because it was something that was never talked about. My therapist knew of the issues I had with my body, weight, and my dieting but having an eating disorder never became a topic of conversation until I brought it to his attention. Why is that? Is it because I’m a man? Is it because when you look at me, you can’t tell I have an eating disorder? Well, most people don’t wear their eating disorders.
After I received a diagnosis of Binge Eating Disorder I got the opportunity to travel the country and share my story, however I felt like a fraud because I was going around preaching how “I’m better” but that wasn’t the case yet. In fact, I was in the thick of my eating disorder, probably the sickest I have ever been and no one knew it.
I reached a point where I couldn’t go on like this anymore. I went to my doctor and broke-down and pleaded that I needed help. So my therapist worked with me to find the best treatment options for me.
Getting help was the most life-changing thing I’ve ever done for myself. I’ve met some of my closest friends within the eating disorder community who not only accept me for me but also understand everything that I’ve been through and am going through. There is comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. Because of this community, I have finally been able to come to terms with who I am and own it. I never thought that coming to terms with my eating disorder and getting help would bring so much peace and acceptance into my life.
We need more people from all communities to talk about their struggles with their bodies and disordered eating. In turn, we need doctors to be more aware and ask better questions to their patients. A lot of times my doctor would ask, “How’s your appetite” or “How are you eating habits”, to which I would always answer “Fine” because I didn’t know there was anything wrong with me. I never in a million years would’ve thought I was struggling with an eating disorder until a friend brought up their concerns for me.
Now I’m not perfect, I’ve been in recovery since 2016, I am a NEDA ambassador, I have a platform where I share my journey but I still have my moments where I revert back to old habits but the difference is, is now when I see it happening I know exactly what to do, and for me that is reaching out to my support group.
I reached a point where I accepted my body in every way and I wanted to celebrate it, that’s why I decided to pursue a career in modeling.I’m so proud of the work I put into myself, I finally started believing in me and started to love myself, that has been life-changing. This is possible for everyone, for me it started by changing the dialogue in my head. Finding a manager who truly understands my journey, my path, and my vision has been incredible.
Maddy: According to a report on the NEDA website: Subclinical eating disordered behaviors (including binge eating, purging, laxative abuse, and fasting for weight loss) are nearly as common among males as they are among females. This surprised me since we mostly hear stories who speak to women. For parents or families with young children what are the warning signs? And are there websites that offer help and/or information?
Ryan Sheldon: 30 million Americans are currently struggling with an eating disorder or will struggle with one in their lifetime and 10 million of those are men, that’s 1/3. Now, I believe that number is severely underrepresented due to the stigmas that surround mental health, specifically men and mental health. After all, eating disorders are mental health issues.
Eating disorders do not discriminate, they don’t care about your sexual orientation, your gender, religion, race, socioeconomic standing, and the list goes on.
As far as warning signs and symptoms, the best place to check is the NEDA website – warning signs and symptoms and NEDA has a great Parent Toolkit.
The best piece of advice that I can give parents who think their child may be struggling with an eating disorder is to speak to them like they are humans, and ask the right questions. I wish my mom would’ve asked me, “How are you doing” when she noticed my eating habits changing instead of being accusatory.
Maddy: Can we talk about body image and self-confidence? In speaking with many plus-size male influencers, bloggers and models I’ve realized we all go through the very same things in this industry. How can we encourage self-esteem inside of an industry where self-confidence, popularity, and algorithms are very much part of the fabric of the industry?
Ryan Sheldon: Seeing more models from marginalized communities represent brands is a huge start. 10 years ago you never would’ve seen people from marginalized communities on the cover of magazines.
A lot of us focus on the number of likes we get on Instagram as some sort of success meter, the more likes you get, the more successful, popular, attractive you are but I avoid those success meters and thoughts even though it’s hard. You can usually tell within 10 minutes of posting something on Instagram how it’s going to “perform”, and the more revealing you are with your body, the better it performs, at least in my experience.
Lately, on Instagram, I have seen a ton of guys shirtless showing off their bodies, whether they have a six-pack or not and they all get a ton of likes. That’s got me thinking…
“If I show my stomach on Instagram, maybe I will get more likes”.
I will most likely never be the guy who goes shirtless on Instagram, not that there’s anything wrong with it but I don’t think that to get my message across I need to do that. I have a voice and a powerful message so just by being true to who I am, I am getting “likes”!
More importantly, in doing all that I do, my hope is to positively impact at least one person through my work, which includes modeling, advocacy, and so much more. I want people to know that it is possible to simultaneously follow your dreams, be authentic, and not let people’s opinions get in the way and help others.
The more people from marginalized communities who are out there talking about their bodies and their struggles are what needs to happen for this to become a topic of conversation which is slowly happening!
Maddy: Let’s talk about body image on a personal level… reports state that body image can begin developing as early as the early teens for some children. In your experience, how early in your life did self-esteem and body image affect you?
Ryan Sheldon: I remember having issues with my body image from a young age, it first started with my hair and my acne, and then developed to issues with my muscles on my chest and calves, and then just became an overall issue.
I remember going to the pool as a kid – probably 10 years old and I would wear a shirt to go swimming. People would ask why I was wearing a shirt and I would respond with “I get sunburned easily”. This was the real beginning for me. Why did I care at the age of 10 what my body looked like? How was it possible that at such a young age I already had body image/self-esteem issues? Maybe it was because I was bullied in school for being fat, which there is nothing wrong with but at that age I didn’t understand why my body was the reason I was miserable in my school life.
Maddy: How does self-esteem/body image tie in with eating disorders?
Ryan Sheldon: While body image and eating disorders don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand they often do, and that was the case in my situation. The goal for me was to be skinny at all costs, to have that cultural ideal body image, you know the ones you see on the cover of magazines, the ones with the 6 packs. Which is ironic considering I’m now on the cover of a magazine (surreal).
The media plays such a huge part in body image and eating disorders. As a society we are taught that to be successful, powerful, wealthy, worthy, and lovable we have to look a certain way and this is WRONG. The media needs to start showcasing people of all sizes from marginalized communities.
It wasn’t until I became truly comfortable in my body that I was able to get my eating disorder under control. You often hear the term “Body Positive” but I struggle with that because I can’t tell you that I love all of my body every day but I can sit here and say that I accept and embrace my body just as it is. At times do I wish I had a different body, of course, but I have reached a place where I fully embrace my body and my curves.
Maddy: How did you turn the corner to wellness?
Ryan Sheldon: I was so sick of being sick, I was so tired of hating myself, that I asked for help. The reason I started my Instagram account was that when I was first diagnosed I went to google and typed in “Men with eating disorders” and nothing popped up, so I figured if I’m struggling then so many other men must be suffering in silence as well.
I mentioned earlier that I’m not perfect and it’s true that recovery isn’t linear. People often ask me what my rock bottom moment was that made me take this turn to seek help, the truth is, is that I’ve had several. My latest one was about a year ago – take in mind at this time I have been in recovery for over two years. I was dating someone who for the first time in my life made me feel sexy, and then I got cheated on and left for the other guy, who in my mind had a better body than me, that cultural ideal body that I speak about.
It was at this time that my eating disorder took an ugly turn and I picked up behaviors that I had never acted upon before. As soon as this happened I reached out to my support group and nipped it in the bud.
The reason I bring this up is that it’s so important to address that for me my eating disorder may always be a part of my life but because I asked for help I am now able to take action in a positive way when things like this happen.
Maddy: Can you talk to us about your work with NEDA and how you have turned your life experiences into bringing awareness to eating disorders?
Ryan Sheldon: My journey with NEDA started by me writing a blog post for them titled “Men Struggle, Too: My Journey with Binge Eating Disorder” . After I wrote this, things changed. I started doing more for NEDA, such as speaking at the NEDA/BEDA conference in 2017. One thing led to another and I was asked to become a NEDA Ambassador which in my mind is one of the highest honors. Not only do I have my own platform where I share some of the darkest moments of my life but I now am getting recognized for doing so by an organization that is near and dear to my heart.
I travel the country and share my story of struggling with an eating disorder and body dysmorphic disorder on behalf of NEDA. When I first started to do this I was (kind of) all over the place in terms of my journey and being vulnerable. I wasn’t sure how I was going to be received if I went out there and shared things like how my eating disorder was causing me to go into debt but, what happened was life-changing. When I started sharing my story that was most authentic to me I started to receive hundreds of messages from men and women thanking me for opening up about my struggles and then, in turn, sharing their struggles with their eating disorders.
When you think of eating disorders, unfortunately, most people think of the stereotypical persona; white, thin, rich girl but this isn’t the case at all. 30 million Americans are currently struggling with an eating disorder or will struggle with one at some point in their life and 10 million of them are men, that’s 1/3! I believe this number is severely underrepresented due to all of the stigmas that are associated with men and eating disorders/mental illness.
Working with NEDA has not only been cathartic for me but it’s also educated me. Historically, you would not often see people from marginalized or underrepresented communities in the modeling industry and empowering this industry to start becoming truly inclusive is something I am very passionate about. While I can’t speak for communities that are more marginalized than me, I can speak from my own experience as I am an expert in my own experience.
There is an assumption that just because I have a platform and am a NEDA ambassador, I have it all figured out but that’s far from the truth, I’m not perfect. The one thing that I do have figured out though is that recovery is possible. Just because you don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel right now doesn’t mean it’s not there, and just because you may take one step forward and two steps back don’t make you wrong, it makes you human.
We all have the ability to impact someone else’s life in a positive way just by sharing our story and that’s exactly what I’m doing. Vulnerability creates authenticity, and authenticity creates a connection.
Maddy: How has modeling impacted your body image and self-esteem?
Ryan Sheldon: When I first got signed to TRUE Model Management I was floored with excitement, I couldn’t believe that someone who has struggled with his body for most of his life was now going to be represented for that same body. Right after the excitement came this thought “Am I worthy of this?” followed by “Am I too fat?”. A couple of days after signing, I booked my first job with UNTUCKit and my fears were weirdly amplified.
On-set, I thought, “No one here is my size, why’s that?”. The industry is now starting to become more size-inclusive and maybe I was the start for them. After that shoot, I started getting more comfortable with the idea of being the “Big & Tall” model, and I never looked back. As a result of being on so many sets, I got used to changing in front of people, dancing in front of the camera, and being totally comfortable in my own skin. Now when I’m on set, I hold my head high, like a man on a mission and nothing can stop me!
Maddy: What are you up to now?
Ryan Sheldon: I am continuing my advocacy work as a NEDA Ambassador and I started a Facebook support group for men struggling with Eating Disorders and/or Body Image issues, you can request to join here. I am currently the resident body image expert with a weekly recurring segment on Loveline with Dr. Chris Donaghue (national radio). I am also working on a digital series called “States Of Perception: Body Image” – A digital series filmed across the USA, exploring what body image means to people in all 50 states. I am a Big and Tall / Brawn model represented by TRUE Model Management.
Someone recently asked me, “Ryan, if you had the opportunity to speak with your younger self, what would you say?”.
It took me a minute to process this because never in a million years would I have ever thought that as a kid who was so badly bullied in school for his acne, being overweight, his feminine characteristics, his dyslexia, and his quirky personality would ever have the opportunities that I’ve gotten. I was bullied to the point that I had to be homeschooled and that’s not right. If I had the opportunity to speak with my younger self I would say “Even though it seems like your dreams aren’t possible, even if it feels like you’re not worthy, they are and YOU are. If you put in the effort, life gets better even when you think it can’t”.
It’s crazy how my classmates from high school, the ones who used to bully me, now message me and say “We just saw you on a Target ad”. I simply respond with a “Thank you”. It’s wild how life works out. You have a dream (being on the cover of a magazine was one of mine) and you continue to pursue that dream and fight through the rejection and just keep going and that is where you find success.
I feel extremely fortunate to be modeling and have an impactful career. I am energized to continue pursuing my dreams and having you all come along for the journey!
Maddy: A big heartfelt thank you to Ryan Sheldon for sharing his #myplusjourney with PLUS Model Readers #grateful…