I felt betrayed by the medical industry, which had told me to exercise more and eat less and now was telling me I was hurting myself. Wasn’t I only following their instructions?
(Content warning: discussion of eating disorders)
Whenever I dare to take up space in public, I am immediately policed for being fat. Fat people are, after all, lazy, grotesque, unintelligent, morally corrupt, laughable — we are the worst that could happen if you “lose control.” I am doubly damned for being a woman who is fat, my thick thighs and wobbly upper arms in defiance of a culture that tells us that pleasing the male gaze is not only about making life easier, but surviving it at all.
I am reminded of my fatness every time I leave the house, most often by people who claim to be concerned for me. Strangers prod at the groceries in my basket with shaking heads and “tsk”ing tongues. Going out for dinner with a slender partner means an hour of defending myself against pointed side-eyes. Talking to my psychiatrist to gain access to much-needed medication leads to being encouraged to crash diet — and threatened with loss of my prescriptions if I don’t. Talking to my doctor about pain in my knee and lower back, pain I can trace back to injuries dismissed by years of medical professionals, only leads to lectures about heart attacks and weight.
I am 33 years old and I still feel safest eating in a private room, alone, behind a closed door.
The first time I policed my eating was when I was a pre-teen. I was always good at pushing myself to ignore physical needs in order to keep doing an activity, especially if I felt pressure to complete a job. I wasn’t raised with snacks, so I learned to ride the waves of hunger with ease, aware that while my stomach may feel pangs now, in an hour of focusing on something else I would forget and the pain would subside. Later, when I was raped, being able to compartmentalize how my body felt, and to push on, became vital to my emotional survival. What was initially a simple endurance test became necessary for stabilizing my mental health.
I learned about anorexia through other teenage girls. I didn’t read a lot of magazines or watch much television, but I could see the impact of media on the girls around me who counted calories and refused to eat in front of boys. My weight was pretty average until I started anti-depressants. I learned fast that it was far more preferable to be miserable and thin over fat and emotionally stable. I had long mastered the practice of ignoring my hunger.
As my body expanded to look like my mother’s and my grandmother’s, I blamed myself for not being controlled enough. I had self-discipline down to an art form, and could get through a week on less than 1000 calories a day. I saw examples of people who had lost drastic amounts of weight by combining very low calorie diets with intense exercise, so I would work out as often as I could. There was a period of time I would exercise until I literally collapsed, then get up the next day and do it again.
I lost the weight, but not fast enough. I was still very sensitive to the comments about fat women, how no one cared if fat women were raped because they were less than human. I didn’t want to be raped again, so 1000 calories a day became less, and less, until I could “forget” to eat for a couple of days at a time. I ended up in the hospital. I was too weak to fight against the forced feedings, but I resolved to go back to my routine as soon as I could. I felt betrayed by the medical industry, which had told me so often to exercise more and eat less and now was telling me I was hurting myself. Wasn’t I only following their instructions?
It was during this time I ended up falling hard on my knee, causing a ligament injury that makes many types of exercise difficult to do without sharp pain in my hip, lower back and foot. My doctor at the time told me that my knee hurt because of my weight. I had just barely recovered from losing over 70 pounds, but I weighed 170 pounds — overweight by BMI standards. So I exercised compulsively, re-injuring my knee and causing lasting damage.
It took years of therapy and supportive partners for me to be able to look into a mirror again without flinching. I took up nude modeling and grew to love my body through the lens of photographers who caressed my curves with their cameras. I gained new habits and grimly made myself eat on a regular basis until I began to understand my body’s hunger cues again. I began to explore fat activism, eventually being looked to as a voice of the movement.
But the lessons you learn from anorexia never go away. Acknowledging the amount of policing I’m subjected to when I leave the house, or the job opportunities I lose to someone slimmer if less experienced, the social situations I might be invited to if I just took up less space. It makes me wonder sometimes if I would be happier if I just lost a little weight. It’s certainly led me to deny my extroverted nature, because introversion is the only thing that feels safe. The daily barrage of harassment I encounter online whenever I post an article or do an interview, most of it revolving around my fatness and my lack of value due to my body, makes me feel uncomfortable even when I don’t leave the house. Nowhere is truly safe from fatphobia, or the violent and constant harm that is done to people for not conforming.
When I am under a lot of stress, it is still far too easy for me to “forget” to eat, hours and even days going past without me eating the calories a body requires. When I do eat, I often have to make myself do it — textures go from pleasant to disgusting quickly, flavors become unappealing, smells make me gag suddenly and without explanation. No matter how many years pass in my recovery, I will always be an anorexic. And as a fat anorexic, I will always take up too much space while being invisible.