“I want to have the body of a teenage boy.”
This is what I have thought to myself while looking in the mirror all those times; wondering why my chest isn’t flat, my hips aren’t more narrow, my thighs aren’t straighter. When I said this to my healthy friends, they thought it was just one of my eccentric quirks. When I said it to my friends on online eating disorder forums, they thought I just meant I wanted to be skinny, the same way they did. But what I was trying to starve away was something more than just flesh. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I felt there was something deeply wrong with my body. I didn’t just want to be smaller. I wanted to rid myself of my femaleness, the parts of me that made people look at me and see a woman. For a very long time I convinced myself that my hatred of my breasts and desire for a slim, boy-like body were simply body image issues, not at all tied to gender. But although it’s been 13 years since I first developed disordered eating habits and eight years since I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder, only within the past year have I realized that my eating disorder has always been closely tied to my nonbinary gender identity.
I began to feel uncomfortable with my body when I was 10 years old, and I expressed my discomfort by attempting to control my weight during the most formative years of my adolescence. By the time I was 15, my habits had developed into a full-blown eating disorder which took over my life for the next seven years. Living with an eating disorder for so long caused many health issues, contributed to anxiety and depression, and had tangible consequences on my education and interpersonal relationships. In short, my eating disorder nearly ruined my life. Though it has been extremely difficult, I have managed to work my way out of the darkness — as I write this, I am 24 years old and I have been consistently in recovery for more than one year.
Over the years I have tried many times to understand why this happened to me and why it has been so difficult to recover. Even in the times when I have been consumed by my eating disorder I understood that it had very little to do with the number on the scale. Of course, eating disorders are complex, a combination of genetically inherited traits and environmental triggers, interwoven with highly individualized thought processes. It is near-impossible to pinpoint exactly why any person develops an eating disorder, and I have given up on doing so for myself. Perfectionism and obsessive tendencies inherited from my obsessive-compulsive father, a history of child abuse, and an unstable family life have surely influenced my tendency to self-destruct. I am also certain that my gender and sexual identity have shaped my eating disorder in ways which cisgender, straight people who suffer from eating disorders do not experience.
I was assigned female at birth, meaning that I have breasts and a vulva, and I am perceived as a woman in society. Since I was young, I have known that I am strongly attracted to women. Over the years I have identified as bisexual and as a lesbian; these days I simply use the term “queer” to name my sexuality because it provides me with the fluidity and openness that other labels lack. Growing up queer is an undeniably difficult experience. Our whole lives, we are shown one model of healthy relationships: the cisgender, heterosexual, monogamous couple. This ideal is ingrained into every aspect of American culture, from popular media to children’s toys. The disconnect that a queer child or adolescent feels when they realize they are different is so uncomfortable that it causes many of us to retreat into ourselves and hide who we really are for the sake of protecting our safety. The eating disorder – a secretive, isolating, self-destructive illness – can feel like a natural extension of oneself, an outlet for those feelings of worthlessness, and a means of exercising control when everything else in life feels uncontrollable. My struggle with defining and understanding my sexuality while in the grips of an eating disorder was only compounded by the difficulties inherent in unraveling my gender identity, which does not fit the binary model that is prevalent in our society.
My gender identity falls under the umbrella term of “nonbinary.” This term refers to a wide array of gender identities which do not fall neatly and exclusively into the categories of male and female. At this point in time, I identify as gender-fluid; sometimes I identify as a girl, other times I identify as a boy, sometimes I feel gender-neutral, and other times I feel I am a combination of genders. Nonbinary gender identities are more common than one might think, but because we live in a society which highly values and relies on the male/female gender binary, nonbinary identities are invalidated, mocked, and not taken seriously — if they are acknowledged at all.
To be nonbinary in a binary society is to feel less than human. When you are told—constantly, every day, through media, clothing, and pronouns—that there are two genders, male and female, and that the members of these groups are very different from each other and can be distinguished from one another by their body parts, it is impossible not to internalize it. So what happens when you feel male sometimes and female other times, and sometimes you feel like both, or neither, or something else entirely? You learn that you are not normal, that there is something wrong with you, something ugly and unspeakable that makes you less than human.
I theorized for a long time that I starved myself, in part, in order to desexualize myself, at least in the eyes of men. In high school, during the worst years of my eating disorder, I was extremely withdrawn and mostly avoided physical intimacy with the few people I dated. I felt disgusted when males looked at me in a sexual manner or complimented me on my body. I thought, at the time and for years afterward, that this response was solely because I was not attracted to men. I thought that my hatred of my breasts and desire to make them disappear, along with my hips and thighs and anything else “womanly,” came from a desire to divert male attention while simultaneously punishing myself for not enjoying that attention, for not being straight. I can now see that there was more to it than that, that being seen as a woman and hating my breasts, wishing for a flat-chested, straight-hipped body — that was gender dysphoria. Starving myself was supposed to bring me closer to that teenage boy body I envisioned and make people stop viewing me as a woman, but it was also self-punishment. I was punishing myself for not being a woman although society said I was supposed to be, for not being a man although I was taught that was the only other option, and for not knowing who or what I was, but that there was definitely something wrong with me.
Recovery has not been an easy process for me. Five years ago, after I had already endured three years of torture with my eating disorder, I decided that I would make my first attempt to recover. Without health insurance to secure professional help or a supportive community to encourage me, I was going it alone. My eating disorder was a secret to the people around me, as were my gender and sexual identity. I continued to struggle for several years, cycling through periods of relative health and devastating relapse. I owe my still-recent recovery to having support systems in place, not just for my eating disorder and mental health, but for my gender and sexual identity as well. Two and a half years ago I began dating my partner and I decided I would never again hide my sexual identity. Coming out is a difficult and sometimes very painful ongoing process, so I made a deliberate effort to connect with queer organizations and communities to ensure my identity would be supported and affirmed. Connecting with these communities and having long conversations with my partner, who also experiences gender dysphoria, opened my eyes to the possibilities of nonbinary gender identities and made me realize what it was about myself that I had been unable to put words to for so long. I am still in the process of accepting my gender identity and coming out about being gender-fluid, but feeling secure in the knowledge that I am not alone and having the language to understand how I feel has been an immense help in working through the ways I think and feel about my body.
My experience is not uncommon in the queer and transgender communities. Through speaking to queer and trans friends and reading other people’s experiences online, I have discovered that queer and/or trans identity and eating disorders often accompany one another. When you don’t feel comfortable in the body in which you were born, and you have no support from society or your peers to express your true inner self, it can make sense to turn on yourself, to do drastic and harmful things to your own body.
In early 2013 I finally had the means to reach out for professional help, securing appointments with a dietician and therapist. Unfortunately, eating disorder and mental health treatment still seem to be geared towards cisgender, heterosexual people. My dietician recommended that I read a book on recovery which encouraged me, the assumed cisgender heterosexual female reader, to think of my eating disorder as an abusive husband or boyfriend. I have had an extremely difficult time finding a therapist who truly understands and respects queer and trans identities and issues, even though I live in a city with a higher-than-average LGBTQ population. I am so thankful for the professional help I have received and strongly encourage people suffering from eating disorders to seek professional mental health treatment, but in my personal experience I have gained more body acceptance and tools for recovery from the queer and trans communities than I have from traditional eating disorder treatment. More research needs to be done to discover how queer and trans identities affect disordered eating behaviors so that comprehensive, inclusive treatment can be developed.
It has been far from easy, but I have accepted my sexuality and my gender identity, and I have more than a year of strong recovery from my eating disorder. I am proud of my accomplishments, but I cannot ignore the fact that every moment there is someone out there – someone like me – who is suffering, and that this is happening while queer and trans voices are left out of conversations about eating disorders. The voices of LGBTQ people need to be heard loud and clear in discourse about eating disorders. I want queer and trans people who are suffering or have suffered from eating disorders to know that they are not alone, their identities are valid, their struggles are legitimate, and they absolutely can get better. It is so very important that our voices are heard, our stories are told, and action is taken to include us in the discussion. Without proper attention to queer and transgender people with eating disorders, we will continue to suffer in silence. I say it’s time we raise our voices louder than ever.
This story is part of the Marginalized Voices Project. Learn more.Back to top