Last week ex-England cricketer and current Top Gear host, Freddie Flintoff broke the silence on male eating disorders with his BBC documentary Freddie Flintoff: Living with Bulimia. I’m not a cricket fan, or a Top Gear fan, but obviously I know who Freddie Flintoff is, and when I saw the title of the documentary I was shocked – ‘I never would have expected him to have an eating disorder,’ I thought. Yet this very thought encapsulates the huge issue surrounding male eating disorders. Whether it was due to his past as a major sportsman, his television success, his laddish personality or the fact that he doesn’t “look ill” I assumed Flintoff was the last person to have been battling an eating disorder for the past twenty years. But that’s why the documentary is so important, it highlights that anyone can experience an eating disorder, including men. According to statistics 1.5 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, 25% of which are male. There is a huge stigma of shame and weakness surrounding male eating disorders, and this documentary excellently portrays how we must eradicate these assumptions and break the taboo on male eating disorders.
After an article drew attention to his weight in his early years as a cricketer, Flintoff’s eating disorder took hold and even today he still feels guilty for the food he consumes. He explains that 20 minutes doesn’t go by without him thinking about the fat on his belly and if he can’t train 9-10 times a week it directly effects his mood. Reminiscing on how he would scout out the toilets at cricket matches to ensure he could plan to throw up, Flintoff explains that once he started throwing up, he lost weight and his cricket career took off. He directly linked this success to being lighter so continued to make himself sick, if he didn’t do it, he didn’t feel good about himself.
“I know how I feel when I put weight on, and I don’t want to feel like that”
The documentary has been commended for sharing experiences of male eating disorders, with bulimic sufferer James Down stating that he wishes he’d known about people like Freddie when he was younger, stating that “the more invisible things are, the less likely you are to share things”. Not knowing other people were going through the same thing meant Down’s felt as though it was his fault, and the programme sheds light on some heart-breaking stories where men felt similarly isolated.
Lawrence was 18 years old when he began vomiting after meals, throwing up in bins around the house and behind trees in the garden in an attempt to keep his bulimia a secret. After a lack of knowledge resulted in an unsuccessful trip to the doctors the family felt isolated, dealing with a disorder that they felt no one understood, including themselves. When Lawrence’s Mum tried to get her son to open up to her, he replied “Mum, if I told you what was in my head, I’d scare you”. At age 24, Lawrence had a heart attack in his sleep and died. This story highlights how essential it is to raise awareness of male eating disorders, as this feeling of weakness is actively stopping men from feeling encouraged to seek help.
“Mum, if I told you what was in my head, I’d scare you”.
Eating disorders are hard to comprehend if you don’t suffer yourself, hence why it is so isolating for sufferers, as they know what they’re doing is wrong, but can’t stop. Flintoff admits that he almost enjoyed it, it became addictive. I have a known friends with eating disorders, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, but I have never known a male sufferer. After discussing this with my housemate, we discussed how boys tend to joke with each other about weight. Whilst there is a pressure on girls to be slim, or have a good bum, having a six pack and being toned isn’t as much of a pressure, yet with boys there is almost a pressure that if you aren’t “ripped” you’re fat or stocky. Flintoff felt the need to lose weight when the press commented on his weight and made him feel he needed to lose it. Towards the end of the documentary an eating disorder expert states that commonly eating disorders have nothing to do with weight, food, or body image – it stems from an event. For Flintoff it was being noticed by the press and suddenly feeling like everyone was constantly looking at him. Even now he is retired from the sport he feels like people are still looking.
“I feel better when I’m lighter”
I don’t want to give anymore away about the programme, because I do actually want you to watch it. But what I can say is that I hope they do a follow up programme in a year or so, hopefully exploring Flintoff’s treatment and recovery. The end of the documentary sees Flintoff seeking treatment for the first time, having never had an official bulimic diagnosis. Whilst of course the fact that he fronted this documentary and has opened up about his struggles is incredibly brave, I got a strong sense that he is in a state of denial in regards to the extent of his eating disorder. Sadly, he seems to think he deserves to live like this, stating that he feels he is dictating the terms of his eating disorder, rather than the other way around. His successful career, both on and off the pitch, and his supportive family lead him to believe that if the “only bad thing” he has to deal with is his eating disorder, that’s ok. But that isn’t ok. No one deserves an eating disorder and everyone should feel they can access support and be capable of beating it. Yet it’s easy to see why Flintoff has these thought processes after he recounts the words of a dietician at the height of his sporting career. Addressing him and his fellow players, she said “I work with lots of female Olympians and athletes and a lot of them have eating disorders, but there will be none of that in this room will there” – this is exactly the kind of language and gendered approach to mental health that we need to avoid.
Body confidence and anti-diet campaigner Alex Light (@alexlight_ldn) found the documentary really triggering as a past bulimia sufferer. By the end of the documentary, Flintoff has lost weight and is excessively exercising, and Alex admitted on her Instagram story that it made her miss her eating disorder. She posted, “It made me remember the ‘good stuff’ – the sense of purpose, the all-consuming goal that kept me going, the highs of weight loss and the intoxicating euphoria of control”. She appreciates that she chose to watch it, and that even though she was triggered it should still have been aired, yet she really wishes that they’d explored recovery in more detail and revealed how worthwhile and life changing it is – and I tend to agree. I can’t speak as a sufferer myself, but Flintoff didn’t really promote recovery, on the one hand this conveys the extent of his struggle, but for fellow sufferers who relate to Flintoff, this may make them think that they too are managing it themselves and only need professional help as a last resort.
“I felt like it showed the problem without *really* showing or even offering the solution”
What is important is that by the end Flintoff does agree to treatment, the hardest step to take. But I do really hope that a follow up programme airs in the future to track his recovery journey and prove that treatment is the best option for people. I understand Light’s fear that Flintoff will almost becomes a bulimic role model to other sufferers, yet I hope that by being brave enough to open up about his struggles, he will continue to highlight that recovery is absolutely an option for everyone. Eating disorders cause more deaths than any other mental illness – speaking up doesn’t make you weak and we need more men like Flintoff to speak up.