Why Zayn Talking About His Eating Disorder Matters

Zayn doesn’t owe us his personal story — no survivor does — but I’m glad that he has chosen to share

Diary of a Professional Teen is a weekly column of #deep thoughts by twentysomething teenager and youth expert Taylor Trudon. Every Thursday, she’ll talk about her feelings in relation to what it’s like to be a Young Person in 2016.

From the Beatles to the Spice Girls, almost every successful pop group is divisible into unofficial but distinct personality categories, usually decided by teenage girls at sleepovers. The Wholesome Cute One. The Goofy One. The Hot, Potentially Dangerous One.

When I think of Zayn Malik, especially in his role as a former member of One Direction, he is many things. He is quiet and artsy. With his sleeve tattoos and smoldering stare that makes me melt like a gooey Toll House chocolate chip cookie, he is sexy. He isn’t afraid to have feelings or to show his vulnerability, as we saw when he cried on camera after buying his mom a house. If I had to choose one subcategory in which to file him, Zayn would unquestionably be the Sensitive One.

Our culture teaches boys not to show emotion or care too much, that being sensitive is a weakness. Or, well, they can be sensitive, but it has to be the right kind of sensitive, like the woke Ryan Gosling “Hey girl, let’s smash the patriarchy together” or the Bruno Mars crooning “Girl, you’re amazing just the way you are” kind.

But Zayn has emerged as the kind of sensitive that goes beyond ephemeral memes and Top 40 lyrics. In an excerpt for his new autobiography, published by TIME, he details his struggles with anxiety during his One Direction days and how the “huge but manageable” issues he faced as a member of the band were suddenly magnified once he launched his solo career. This eventually led to him canceling a show at Wembley Stadium, a decision he explained by saying, “I have suffered the worst anxiety of my career.”

While he wrote that this confession “led to a fair amount of media and fan speculation,” he adds that he was “blown away” by the positive response — specifically from men. “Guys on Twitter were telling me how anxiety had affected their lives and saying that they were glad I had spoken up,” he said. “It felt as though some good had come from the situation.”

I’ve already commended Zayn on Twitter for choosing to speak up about his mental health, but what blew me away was him going public soon after with the news that he had also suffered from an eating disorder, as well as the candid way he spoke about it.

“I’d just go for days — sometimes two or three days straight — without eating anything at all,” he wrote. “I had lost so much weight I had become ill.”

Typically, when we think about eating disorders, we think of young women. If you search for stock images under the term “eating disorder,” the first ones you’ll see are teenage girls standing on scales or shedding mascara tears in front of bathroom mirrors. We’re quite familiar with the “MY BIG SECRET” headlines about female celebrities and their “shocking” Access Hollywood stories on TV. Magazines promise to get women “bikini body ready” for the summer and offer tips for avoiding “temptation” around the holidays. But we rarely think of teenage boys in this context, even though 10 million men will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime. According to NEDA, statistics surrounding male eating disorders remains somewhat vague because many ED assessments contain gender bias, having been designed for females, not males. It also doesn’t help that there is a special stigma for men seeking help for such disorders. They are uncomfortable or embarrassed, and they don’t want to be perceived as weak. So they remain silent.

In addition to men, it’s worth noting that transgender teens are more at risk for developing eating disorders than their cicgender peers.

I can’t remember the last time I heard or read about a male cisgender celebrity openly discussing eating disorders. But maybe, by Zayn discussing his, young men — and other identities so far underrepresented in the conversation around these issues — will be inspired to get help.

It’s important to remember that Zayn doesn’t owe us his personal story — no survivor does, famous or not — but I’m glad that he has chosen to share. When male public figures speak out about their mental health history or body image, it helps to destigmatize these issues for all of us. When celebrities like Zayn, Justin Bieber, or Kid Cudi open up about their struggles, it sends a message to young men that they shouldn’t be ashamed, and that their narratives are valid, even if they’re not acknowledged as much as they should be.

I applaud Zayn for his bravery. And I applaud him for demonstrating that being “sensitive” is about more than hitting high notes.

If you or someone you know is dealing with mental illness, there are ways to get help. Find resources, tips, and immediate help at Half of Us, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

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