As an eating disorder survivor, bodies and how they are culturally perceived is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. Having wasted many years of my life trying to demonstrate—indeed, create—social value for myself by attempting to change the way my body looks, I understand that as a person AFAB* and regularly presumed to be a womyn, my value is reliant almost entirely on how well I conform to certain standards of beauty. (For what it’s worth, I conform to these in some ways, and not in others.) Social acceptance is important for most people, but for womyn-identified and AFAB people, this kind of acceptance still relies primarily on the way we look. Failing to meet these strictly-enforced standards of beauty effectively means that you are bad, undesirable, unwanted, even immoral—a waste of space, if you are even acknowledged at all.
Since my diagnosis as a teenager, I’ve tried to pay attention to how eating disorders are portrayed in the mainstream media. I don’t believe it’s changed much in the decade or so since I became interested, although I can’t back this opinion up with anything other than my own observations. Still, it seems like it’s only been within the last few years that the mainstream media has begun to really acknowledge that people other than young, white, middle- and upper-class womyn suffer from eating disorders. While the narrative is slowly shifting to recognize that men can also have eating disorders (and it grinds my fucking gears to see that these diseases are taken more seriously because of this), it is rare to see coverage of this phenomenon in people of color, gender and sexual minorities, and poor people, despite the fact that young womyn of color and poor people may be particularly vulnerable to EDs, as well as underdiagnosed and undertreated. I’ve noticed that for many people with an ED or EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified) with whom I’ve talked or whose work I’ve read, reducing the amount of space you take up in a capitalist, racist heteropatriarchy fundamentally against people like you makes getting smaller pretty appealing. Who’da thunk it.
Being trans* was a significant complicating factor in my perceptions of my body—it’s just that I wasn’t aware that people could have a gender that was not “man” or “womyn” (predicated, of course, on being “male” and “female”-bodied, respectively) until I was in my early twenties. What I understood at the time as a simple desire to be very thin was actually more about purging what I saw as the “female” parts of myself. As I see reaffirmed daily in pop culture, advertisements and in the behavior of people I encounter, femaleness is at best a weakness and at worst a sin, and I wanted the markers of it (softness and body fat, hips and breasts, etc.) off of me. I can trace being trans* back to the earliest anxieties I had about my body and how I eat, it just took me a few decades to figure it out. Indeed, that I am not a womyn was a fact I could not articulate to myself until extremely recently. I labored towards coming to terms with my confusion about my femaleness on the battleground of my actual physical body. If I couldn’t destroy those female aspects of it, I would destroy the whole thing. Unfortunately, I did a pretty good job with the latter.
I can only speak for myself when I saw that as a genderqueer/trans* person (one who is also white and tends to have passing privilege, I’ll note), being read as a womyn or female makes me feel, like, bad. Not only are femininity, female-bodied people, and womyn so completely denigrated in our culture that just living as a person identifying or read as such is a debasement (!), but I was forced to grapple with my own gender variance and my body’s “deviancy” from the gender binary by the only means to which I had access: years of restricting, compulsively exercising, cutting, taking laxatives and emetics, and inflicting other kinds self-injury on my own body to distance myself from femaleness. As if by losing weight I could force other people to recognize and respect my gender identity, as if being “merely” female could possibly be a bad thing to be.
I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve realized that it’s not only important to value myself, respecting my gender identity and the body in which it resides, but it’s also crucial that I support the people in my life who are womyn, femme, and/or female-bodied. Dissociating myself from the femaleness I was assigned at birth by the brutality of an eating disorder was the only way I knew how to survive when I was younger, but it doesn’t have to be like that, and I don’t have to live like that. These days, I’m focusing on taking up as much space as possible, and supporting my sisters (including my literal sisters), as they do the same.
*AFAB: assumed female at birth
Haley Davis is a writer and would-be thinker who will be attending Mills College for hir MFA in Fiction starting in the fall of 2012. Zie blogs about queerness, trans*identities, gender, feminism, mental illness and disability, reproductive “choice” and policy, intersectional oppression, and body politics at Fembot. Zie can be contacted at haleyrd [at] gmail [dot] com and prefers “she”/”her” or gender-neutral pronouns.