Why do I do karate? I’ve wanted to do a martial art since I was a kid, but my mother’s strict no-violence policy wouldn’t allow it. In college, decreased parental supervision enabled me to finally live the dream. At least, that’s what I tell people. It’s not untrue, but it’s not the whole truth either. What it is is easy – way easier than explaining the real reasons.
You can’t understand why I do karate without knowing about my experience as a trans person managing an eating disorder.
I started karate because I was angry. It was September, and a classmate had sexually assaulted a close friend of mine. I was furious – furious about what had happened, furious that there was so little that I could do. It was the kind of anger that kept me awake until 3:00 AM, full of restless energy, and fizzed in the background all day. When a notice for a beginners’ karate class caught my attention, the anger, needing somewhere to go, pulled me in that direction.
I was hideously awkward in that first class – a tangle of sluggish, uncoordinated, out-of-synch limbs; basketball shorts and baggy t-shirt standing out against the neat gis and belts – but, at the end, I left feeling calmer.
Nine months later, my friend has gotten the school to issue a no-contact order against the assailant and has made it through two full semesters staying on campus. I joined a student group that gives informational presentations about sexual assault and rape culture to various campus communities and organizations. I’m also an orange belt in karate and still training. Anger made me start, but what has kept me involved? Simple: it feels good.
Because I grew up with this body that feels incongruent with my sense of myself, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find things that feel good. Music, reading, taking care of people, swimming, working out – all these ways that I keep going. But not everything that feels good is good for me. Precisely counted calories, regimented meals and exercise, a razor tracing lines across my skin…
I didn’t really come out as trans. Instead, I came in – into an adolescent health clinic with my blood pressure at 89/58 and a heart rate of 44 beats per minute. My parents and I chose inpatient treatment over partial, and I was admitted to the hospital for bed rest and remedial nutrition. I was seventeen, almost halfway through my senior year of high school.
The treatment program had a counseling component, and in my daily psych sessions I finally voiced what I had known all along: controlling my eating was about making the contours of gender melt away into straight lines of androgyny. I also admitted that what had started as a targeted way of addressing the particular concern of gender had become a catch-all for anxiety – insecurity about my hearing loss, fear of failure, and worries about life in general – and was now out of my control.
I was discharged after a week, but that wasn’t the end of it. Letting go of my eating disorder has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. For me, restrictive eating, compulsive calorie counting, rituals around food – all are tangled up with my sense of gender. I’d spent years not fitting, not belonging in my own body, and after mere months of micromanaged diet my figure felt the closest to me it had since before puberty – maybe ever. The eating disorder had a trump card. What reason did I have to gain weight when I knew how good losing it felt? What sort of incentive was some abstract idea of “health” when my eating disorder could offer me greater comfort and the tantalizing prospect of a body that actually felt like home?
After discharge, I continued treatment through regular outpatient appointments and therapy sessions. What the doctors called “progress” was to me the methodical undoing months of my hard work. I could actually feel my body changing, feel myself sliding away from where I wanted to be. Gender was size, and size was gender. Everyday people going about their lives had no way to know that when they used “she” to refer to me, I heard “you need to lose more weight.” When they used “he”(or avoided pronouns in helpless confusion), the eating disorder whispered, “good job! You’re on the right track! Just keep doing as I say and we’ll get there.”
The problem was that success was always aspirational. The destination – comfort, home, that promised land of there – was always just out of reach. One more meal, one more day, one more pound…I never arrived.
Binary gender is an impossible standard. Forget “beautiful” – I couldn’t even reach “normal.” My gender was a process of perpetual failure. I didn’t make a satisfactory woman, but I didn’t make a convincing man either. I wanted to be neither, but the only acceptable way to do that lay in the narrow zone of fashionable androgyny. Even after I left the hospital, that skinny straight-line aesthetic exerted its powerful gravity on me. I could eat enough to keep myself out of critical condition, but the goal of “health” was just too far away from the physique that matched the androgynous center of my being.
This – limbo – this is where I exist. It’s almost as though, because I won’t make its mandatory choice, the gender binary holds all other parts of my life hostage. When things are calm, it’s easier for me to maintain safe and adequate nutrition. In times of stress, it gets hard, and I tend to revert to reassuring restriction. It’s a precarious balance, and, when I started karate, it was tipping downwards.
I am by no means the only trans person I know who struggles with eating. A recent study indicated an elevated rate of disordered eating among trans youth. This does not surprise me at all. I’m one of the lucky ones. I have parents concerned about my health who got me into treatment. That treatment, available at the local hospital, was accepting and gender-affirming. I got matched with an amazing queer-savvy therapist, and the doctor on-call for the weekend during my admission just happened to be the regional expert on trans healthcare. As trans narratives go, mine is practically a fairytale.
Karate hasn’t changed everything or saved me or anything like that. Yet, in teaching me a new way of moving, it has also taught me a new way of thinking. The physiology is pretty simple. My karate sensei is also a biology professor, and he talks a lot about the biomechanics of our techniques. In karate, one of the central concepts is kime. That’s the moment of tension on the point of impact – followed by immediate release – that gives strikes and blocks their power.
Achieving kime requires mastery of breathing and synchronization of muscular contraction through the body’s center. It’s common knowledge that controlled breathing and physical exertion are potent means of stress relief, and that’s certainly part of why karate feels good. For me, though, there is a mental effect intertwined with the physical. Karate doesn’t ask me to look a certain way. It asks me to do. In leading me to focus on breath and energy, karate enables me to think with my body rather than about it. It’s about movement, not shape. When I train well, I’m not thinking around my body but through it.
Karate lets me be in my body in a way that’s hard to find anywhere else.
Nico is a junior at Brown U and social media intern for the documentary What I’m Made Of. Follow WIMOdoc on Tumblr for posts curated by Nico. To watch a trailer and learn more about the film, visit WIMOdoc.com.
This content was originally published on Proud2bme.org in 2014.