This post was submitted anonymously.
[Trigger warning: discusses eating disorders, without numbers]
Let me preface this with a slight disclaimer: I’m not a mental health professional, I have no background in any form of psychology or psychiatry – my experiences are purely personal and anecdotal relating to my own thoughts on my experiences.
Almost 15 years ago, I made my first conscious effort to avoid eating by giving away my lunch. I was a small ten or eleven-year-old girl. My body hadn’t yet begun to change, as the other girls at school realized – in a particularly agonizing memory, I can remember two of my more developed classmates lifting up my top in the queue for assembly and howling with laughter at my pancake-flat chest that didn’t require a bra.
I didn’t know about diets and weight loss, I didn’t really know about sex, and I definitely didn’t know what a lesbian was. That year we had a substitute teacher and I couldn’t stop talking about her; I even thought about kissing her cheek! I was reliably informed by my much more knowledgeable friend, that this might mean I was a lesbian and, as I didn’t know anything else about this mysterious term, that was that.
By time I was in high school the following year, my already-strained relationship with food had worsened; I started throwing my lunch away. Out of concern, one of my friends told my mum about this. She was worried and I was furious. I don’t remember exactly how things escalated, but continuously and with growing determination and secrecy, I cut out more and more food.
At school, I threw it away; at home, I did everything I could to not eat. Every mouthful I didn’t swallow was an achievement, a victory, a small story of success I spat or scraped away. I ate an apple a day and praised myself for it – I felt strong, powerful. The reality was different: I had no energy; I couldn’t concentrate, work, walk up the stairs…I couldn’t do anything. Doctors first stopped me doing extra-curricular activities, which I loved, then pulled me from classes. My life was avoiding food and nothing else. It even invaded my dreams. But I was sure I needed to keep losing weight. I violently hated my body. I felt like it was keeping me from myself, like it wasn’t myself, like it was this heavy weight bringing me down and stopping me. I wanted to destroy it: I kicked, punched, burnt, scratched, and cut it interminably.
Years later, I still carry these scars, but most of all, I still carry the thought patterns. If I’m upset, I’ll start thinking it’s because I’m fat; if I’m anxious or overwhelmed, I feel unable to eat, starving my feelings and taking comfort from the hunger; if I feel down, I focus on my appearance. Realizing that these thoughts are still with me has been really hard.
I now work in an academic context focusing on gender studies and am a committed feminist. I’ve done the reading and the thinking; I understand the pernicious nature of the media and advertising promoting one image of women; I don’t read women’s magazines with their excessive focus on weight and appearance. So why, when I look in the mirror, do I still focus on weight and appearance?
Eighteen months ago, having endured a relapse, I was involved in a group for women with disordered eating. Part of it was dedicated to looking at external influences on our thoughts and feelings and how these affected us. I had never felt so alien to a group as during this moment. The only feminist, the only lesbian, and the only person coming from a gender studies context, I represented an anomaly within the group. The gap was almost unbreachable. And I think unbreachable is a good term to describe how the conflict between the feminist and the anorexic in me can feel.
I feel like I should be beyond this eating disorder mindset, precisely because of my understanding of feminism and gender studies. In reality, however, it seems to present a myriad difficulties. As a feminist, I don’t prescribe to Cartesian dualism, but as an anorexic, I feel disassociated from my body. As a feminist, I scrutinize the objectification of the female body, yet through the anorexic voice I scrutinize myself as an object. As a feminist, I think that appearance does not matter, but the anorexic part of my mind continuously obsesses over my appearance. These conflicts can feel like I’m always arguing with my own mind.
On the other hand, perhaps gender studies and feminism can help us with the tools to not only understand disordered eating, but also to understand why we might turn to it and, more significantly, how we can begin to stop this behaviour. I know that, from my perspective, a critical engagement with how society controls women through paradigmatic images of femininity and a concern for the body has helped my own understanding of my relationship with food and with society. Therapeutic approaches and therapists should have some understanding of feminism and gender studies – and not act like I’m bonkers when I proffer a Butlerian reading of society.
Of course, being a feminist is not a weapon against an eating disorder, especially as nothing can exist in a vacuum. But maybe the conflicts between feminist thinking and anorexic thinking are not as insurmountable as they first seem. Moreover, perhaps these conflicts indicate the complexities of disordered eating.
And I think the same can be said of woman-identified sexuality. People often assume that lesbian women are immune from the eating disorder anorexia as they seem to live within a context less concerned with normative feminine appearance. I have no idea to what extent this is objectively the case – I have no expertise in this area, only my own experience in different group sessions and out-patient hospitals, I have never met another out non-heterosexual woman with an eating disorder.
As a lesbian woman, I know that I frequently compare myself to other women I find attractive. However, I also know that this provides me with my own mental arsenal against the anorexic voice. I know that the women I fancy are not size ‘0’, stick-thin models; I don’t like seeing ribs or bones, and I think that this has been a good help for me.
Being a lesbian feminist with anorexia I’ve had a very different experience to many other people with the eating disorder. In group sessions, this has made it hard to relate to others and therapists. Additionally, my feminist beliefs and woman-identified desire has provided numerous conflicting issues that have made my own disordered eating harder to understand. However, despite these conflicts, I feel that these same beliefs provide me with the tools to start to better understand and overcome this part of my mind that seems to have affected me for so long.