Working around problems: eating disorders
Note: This article will be about eating disorders and how life gets heavy. Please check with yourself before reading this to determine if this is the best time to engage with this material.
For many of you, it’s not news that transgender and non-binary people suffer from eating disorders at a disproportionately high rate. For example, a 2013 study found that high school transgender students were almost three times more likely than their cisgender peers to restrict their diets and nearly nine times more likely to use diet pills. A 2020 study found that 23% of non-binary people said they had restricted their food in the past 28 days. 12.9% reported binge eating and 7.4% reported excessive exercise.
These statistics read like samples taken from the bottom of a ravine. They cascaded down. They travelled. Look up and you find there are thousands of crossroads that have led this the water in this land subsidence. The pushpin of nature and human infrastructure turns into landscape. The water rotates around them. A series of rocks and concrete and the occasional deer carcass to divert it all. Who can say how we got here.
In these statistics, I see my own life. A whirlwind of memories, beliefs, pressures, words, behaviors. Alone at midnight, devouring a pizza too big for my stomach. Cheeks that tingled and fingers that turned into cold slugs at 4:00 p.m. Ten packages of Milano biscuits stuffed into my backpack and strewn in several different trash cans. Believing that my death will come after choking on Clif bars covered in peanut butter. Every night wondering if I want nothing or everything in my stomach
My eating disorder started as a serious attempt to eliminate fat from my body. It wasn’t that I feared obesity as a concept – although society had certainly spread fatphobia all over my clothes and I was constantly pulling my hair out. On the contrary, I feared the female form that I thought fat would bring. I believed my hips were winding rivers, flowing where they wanted to flow. I thought my face was stuffed with swan’s down, burying the features that I thought would define me better.
So, I did what I saw white men do – I turned my body into an engineering project. My hips could be channeled all the way to my knees. My face could be hollowed out to androgynous bedrock. Anything downwind could be pulled and I set sail for flatter ground.
The summer after high school, I received my copy of Tony Horton’s famous P90X home workout program. For those who’ve shunned that mid-2000s workout sensation, WebMD describes the P90X as “an intense home exercise DVD program that says it can give you a lean, muscular body in 90 days.” It does this by giving you pre-recorded workouts for six days a week and a meal plan book. It was the first time I had seen diet and exercise inextricably linked. These two components together – diet and exercise – were what gave you the ripped body. The more you controlled your meals, the more you controlled your workouts, the more you controlled your body.
To be fair, I probably would have stumbled upon an eating disorder, regardless of the P90X. But the P90X was a great way to camouflage mental distress for wellness, and it gave me new tools to quantify my body. Calories could be balanced. Scales could tell unknowable truths about bodies. My mind clung to those numbers. After a year of restrictive eating, I ate a jar of natural, dry peanut butter for the first time. I immediately knew I wanted to do it again, despite overwhelming feelings of guilt – the buzz of energy was what my body craved. I also knew that I should start exercising more to balance out these binges. The binge eating got bigger and the exercise got longer.
The cycle of bulimia and purging is simultaneously shameful, exhausting and thrilling. First and foremost, for me, it’s spiritual – my purpose each day has become so clear. My routine wouldn’t bend for anything or anyone. But it became isolating, and I couldn’t help but feel that those behaviors no longer served me.
Almost 10 years later, I still engage in some of these behaviors and they still don’t serve me. I’m sure most people can understand that they cling to things even when they hurt us. But talking about it helps, and I don’t blame myself for trying to control my body. The part of me that believed in salvation from my eating disorder was ultimately trying to protect me.
We all need to make sense of this world and make sense of ourselves. Capitalism has created an open space for corporations to exploit this uncertainty by selling promises of control – control of school grades, control of energy, control of attractiveness, control of routine, control of coming. But, as many of you have probably discovered for yourselves, control shrinks us. It causes us to see ourselves as individuals working against the forces of the universe.
That’s not to say there aren’t very valid reasons to be in control — many trans and non-binary people are forced to control their appearance to keep themselves safe. Many have to find ways to alleviate feelings of gender dysphoria in order to live. I always do both. But what P90X failed to teach me is that I am inextricably linked to others, to this universe. When I try to control my body, I end up controlling others or controlling forces of nature that cannot or should not be controlled.
I’m learning to let my hips flood. I’m learning to let the swans fly over my face. Restoration work is slow and messy, but letting go is the first step to finding balance. I will do this job all my life.