Halfway through my freshman year, I looked in the mirror, considered what I had eaten that day, and decided that something had to be done. I came to what I believed was the intuitive and logical conclusion that I had to undo what I had inflicted upon myself through food. I decided to throw up.
For those of you who have never “pulled the trigger,” I feel I should describe it to you. It’s a trick to make your body perform one of its most violent and powerful functions. It’s a way to make your body revolt against its own interests, its own health and nutrition. I became a master at this careful art through the countless number of times I puked that year. Popcorn, bread, and spicy foods are hard. Ice cream tastes just as good the second time.
I would wander through Leo’s often, thinking about how beautiful those beets would look at the bottom of my toilet bowl. I was regularly dizzy and my breath and fingers smelled like vomit. I puked about three times per day, after each meal.
I had never thought myself one for social conformity, crippling vanity, or succumbing to patriarchal pressure. I never wore makeup, and kept my legs hairy until about 17. I had been a staunch feminist since I first learned the word, scrolling through the feminist blogosphere in middle school, getting into petty arguments in high school. An eating disorder was, I thought, out of character.
And so for a while, I was able to deny that I was even suffering from one. What I chose to eat and how I managed my body was my business. Everything I did was my own choice. Wasn’t this a feminist principle? The right to decide for one’s self? I could achieve control of everything in my life, starting with my body. We could have it all, couldn’t we? Us white, upper-middle class, urban women? Careers and degrees and love and sex and children and power and beauty? But the last one, we all knew, was the lynchpin. How would you find love and sex and children if you weren’t beautiful? How would you get hired if you were dowdy? Wouldn’t everything you did be worth more, get more attention, and bring you more success, if you had a hot bod?
I decided that I was taking control of my life, instead of losing grasp of it. Through my own internalized misogyny I had assumed that women with “true” disorders must be different from me. But an unhealthy relationship with food is not indicative of the fact that women are dumb or vain, but rather that they have been subject to insidious oppression and classist division.
In my experience, my breakdown made me not only obsessed with food, but obsessed with men. More than anything, I wanted their approval. I wanted to be thin because I wanted to hook-up with men. I wanted to hook-up with men because that would mean I was desirable to them and therefore worthy of personhood and womanhood and life in this world. This was not about sexual desirability in general, but rather about approval from men specifically. I know this because I am bisexual, and never needed this validation from other women. I wanted to gain approval from the majority, from those in power, from the people with the authority to decide what is good.
Eating disorders have become a sort of conspicuous un-consumption. While obesity is growing amongst America’s poorest, the upper class has begun a campaign to remain as thin and bony as possible. I have sometimes come to acknowledge my disorder as not only a preoccupation with male approval, but also as a desire to avoid being “trashy,” and fat, and by extension, poor.
Obsession with appearance is a strikingly effective way to keep women down. My head was filled with calories and calculations and narcissistic self-hate. It can be difficult to focus when your belly is empty. I would lie awake at night, dazed and dizzy, haunted by fantasies of eliminating fat, carving away at my body like a ham. I was not out learning history or science or contemplating how to construct a more just society. I was paralyzed.
For the record, I do not think that men spend their time scheming up new and creative ways to control women. They don’t have to. Oppression finds ways to change and adapt to new environments. In the 1920s, many urban white women already began to feel like they had to wear makeup to get jobs and be respected. Some went so far as to use lead based products, knowingly damaging their health. Their husbands, though, would complain about the fuss women made over their appearances and make fun of their frivolousness. Has so much changed today? Women are still confronted with this double-edged sword of beauty—to be ugly or vain: that is our choice. We face the same beast in new clothes.
Of course, there are men and gender nonconforming individuals who suffer from eating disorders. I’ve met some of them. They face insecurities, pressures, and compulsions, just as women do. And yet, it’s estimated that women represent 85-95 percent of those diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia. And I think there’s a reason.
Even our largest social movements lack the power to fight the internalized hate and fear that prescribes how we conduct ourselves. I had touted myself as a queer, feminist, socially conscious, rebellious young woman. I thought that with a brain and a heart I could perceive and outlast the pressures I faced. And I couldn’t.
I got better, for what it’s worth. But I live with the knowledge that my mind is a creation of this world, as is yours. When we as activists face our own prejudices, how do we work with the knowledge that the enemy is not only “out there,” but “in here?” How do we confront the oppressive thoughts that we think? How do we make ourselves better? When I look at our situation I feel the same way I did my freshman year, staring into the mirror: anxious, and compelled to action.
. . .
For anyone on the edge: I gained significant weight when I was bulimic or otherwise disordered. It’s not healthy, ever. If you want someone to talk to, you should probably go to CAPS, but you can also email me, not a medical professional, at LB931@georgetown.edu. Good luck.