Sexual Harassment, Eating Disorders, and the Quest to De-Woman Myself
I’m gaining weight.
Which is a neutral statement, really. Hell, even a positive one: I have more energy, I’m fitter, my skin is clearer.
But I don’t like it.
Trigger warning for discussions of sexual harassment and eating disorders.
So, last year, I caught someone spying on me getting undressed in my house. It fucking sucked. It’s a dreadful feeling, not to feel safe in your own space, to feel invaded on where you’re meant to have total privacy. I reported it to the police (who handled the entire thing with enormous grace, kindness, and temerity, and who I have nothing but good things to say about with regards to this particular experience), but the perpetrator wasn’t caught.
But, more than anything, I turned that bad feeling in on myself: if I didn’t look the way I did, if I didn’t have the body that I had, I would never have to worry about people looking at me that way again. I would never have to feel that awful, creeping dread of knowing that someone was looking at me and wanting something from me that I hated the thought of giving them. I wanted out of the woman’s body that I was stuck in, because it was this body that had caused this to happen.
And so, the solution was to get rid of it.
At the time when this happened, I was pretty far into recovery for my first round of bulimia the year before; I was mostly physically recovered, and I had gained a little weight that I felt pretty comfortable with. I’m naturally someone who carries their fat in my thighs, my boobs, my stomach, my hips – essentially, all those parts that we use to define someone as feminine and female. And I figured that the best way to insulate myself against further harassment was to lose all of that.
It’s not the first time I’ve dealt with harassment like that, of course. I mean, the brutal truth of being even perceived as even woman-adjacent in the culture that I live in is to deal with that shit at least semi-regularly. Explicit comments on my body and what they want to do with it, following me down the street until I give them the attention they want, even cutting off my path to make sure that I have to acknowledge them: this is just The Shit That Happens, as hateful and exhausting as it is. But there was something about having it happen in my own home, that one place that I was meant to be safe, that just made it all crystallize into that one decision. Like a stressed suburban mother in the sensible minivan of my own body, I snapped: “Right! I’m going to turn this thing around and there’s not going to be any gender for anyone!”
I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of what exactly the eating disorder relapse that followed looked like; like so many people who deal with eating disorders, it looked very different than the one I’d had before, more focused on the stripping-away of the things that helped define me as female. This was around the time that my partner was in hospital, so I didn’t have my usual support system around to keep me on track, and it became distinctly easy to restrict and lose a significant amount of weight without someone day-to-day to notice it.
My life was incredibly small and often incredibly stressful; food, exercise, less, more. I fell asleep with my fingers pressed to my ribs and my hips and my collarbones, promising myself that the fact that I could feel them would insulate me against another experience like the one I’d had before. I thought a lot about Lady Macbeth’s singular speech; un-sex me here..come to my woman’s breasts, and take this milk for gall. That’s what I wanted. De-female-ness. Because if it was the femininity that had caused this, that had caused everything, then stripping it away would make it stop.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t. During this time, I found myself experiencing more street harassment than normal; society in general fetishizes female smallness, and every bite of food I turned down was bringing me closer to that ideal. Every time I got that harassment, I used it as another spur to push myself to keep losing weight. I wasn’t small enough, I wasn’t un-female enough. Eventually, there came a point where I was just fucking sick: I had no energy, I had a constant cold because my immune system had gone to shit, and my periods were non-existent. My fingernails were peeling off. It was nasty, guys. Fucking nasty.
And there came a point that I had to accept that nothing was going to promise me a protection against ever dealing with something like that again. And that punishing myself in an attempt to punish the person who had done this to me was just ruining my life, not his. I started working on a re-recovery, and, by the time that lockdown started, I was in a reasonably solid place with it, even if I hadn’t gained a lot of weight.
But the last few weeks, I have. Which is normal – I can’t exercise as much as I usually do, and I’ve been cooking and baking and therefore eating more as a result. And, like I said, it’s actually a good thing, because I feel better, physically.
But some of the fear that I have been trying to insulate myself against has come back. It’s hard not to look at my stomach or my thighs or my boobs or all those other parts of me that gain weight because that’s what they need to do in order to keep me a functioning, fertile human person, and not see the same body that attracted that horrible attention before. I don’t like it. I don’t like it, because it feels like putting myself at risk again.
So that’s what I’m working on now. Existing in this body, even though it feels unsafe sometimes. There are days when it is honestly painfully difficult not to want to throw away all that progress and shrink myself again, even though I know that my health will suffer, even though I know that losing weight will do nothing to improve my life. I’m writing this in the hopes of providing a point of reference for myself in the future, and so that I can get these messy thoughts out of my brain and into the world at large.
And I know that I can’t be the only one who feels this way; high numbers of anorexic and bulimic patients report experiencing sexual abuse prior to the development of their disorders, and, if it made perfect sense to me to shrink my body to protect against the same thing happened again, I know I’m not the only one this has occurred to. So, to those people, I just wanted to say: I understand. And you’re not alone in dealing with this. That sense of comfort that control over the body can have when you feel as though it has been taken from you is a profound thing. But you deserve better than to punish yourself for someone else’s wrongdoings. And I hope that this article has gone a little way to reminding you of that.
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