What the Movies Don't Tell You About Eating Disorders
Say the word “anorexia,” and most people will have a certain picture in their head. It’s probably a white, very thin teenage girl sitting in a hospital somewhere, maybe hooked up to a tube. The general idea of anorexia is that it happens to young girls. Usually well-off, white girls. No one really considers the outliers.
I’m one of those outliers. I’m a 33 year-old trans man. And throughout my 11 year battle with anorexia, there have been times where I have been very thin — but for most of it, I’ve just kind of looked like a regular person.
Here is where the dangers of eating disorders lie: Once you’ve regained the weight, people generally assume you’re better. People who haven’t experienced an eating disorder assume it’s just about weight, or it’s just about food, and once you start eating properly again, that’s it. It’s not.
There are many different ways to fall into the trap of an eating disorder. If you sample the general fare of eating disorder TV specials and movies out there, maybe we’re all obsessed with fashion magazines and want to look like super skinny celebrities. That’s probably true for some people. But this is how I fell.
I was going to school for theater. I was getting practical training in acting, singing, dancing. I was putting myself on the line every day. It was an intense time, and I had grown up with a temperament that gives me a need to excel. I also grew up with a temperament that makes me feel like accomplishment means nothing — I can always do better. I could never win, because the goal just kept moving.
So I got to this school, this intense time in my life and all of the sudden I was running into daily feelings like I wasn’t accomplishing enough. I would watch the rest of the world and compare myself to them and feel inadequate.
Here’s the thing I don’t admit very often: Descending into anorexia wasn’t completely an accident. I didn’t know how bad it could get, but by the time it got to a certain point, I knew what I was doing. I never really had the best relationship with food. Maybe I was born with this weird tendency to self-destruct. In high school, I was obsessed with the play “Little Sister,” by Joan MacLeod. It tells the story of a (possibly white, well-off) teenage girl who ends up hospitalized for anorexia. An older student had gifted it to the drama department at my high school. When I found it and spoke to the drama teacher about it, the girl who gifted it wrote me a letter. I don’t even remember what the letter said, but I remember it had a profound impact on me. I carried the letter around with me for a while because I was this little grade nine kid who didn’t really have many friends and didn’t feel very accepted, and this older kid just got me.
I used a monologue from this play when I auditioned for theater school. I can still recite the passionate climax where the person with anorexia admits that she is hungry. I got in. And then, when I ended up in an intensive theater training program as a very insecure 22 year-old not-woman, I was a teenager again. I felt like I wasn’t talented enough to be there.
I started restricting my food intake because it was a measurable accomplishment. I started counting calories because the numbers gave me something to judge my progress with. I fell into an 11 year long trap.
There were no fiery scenes where I had a teary standoff with a bagel. No one ever yelled at me to think about what I was doing to myself. People get really quiet when I get below a certain weight. I start getting treated like I’m fragile.
And part of my deep, deep psyche gets addicted to this. Who wouldn’t rather have a bubble wrapped world?
So there are steps I take when these thoughts start surfacing again. No one is going to follow me around with a bagel (it’s always a bagel) and plead with me to eat. It doesn’t work that way, Lifetime. Instead I have to do little things, like remind myself my body actually needs food to run. I tell myself that I can accomplish more meaningful things than dropping the numbers on the scale.
And yes, there are much more meaningful things for me to do than prove that I can fight biology, because I can’t fight biology. My bones will never recover. Every morning I take my calcium pill and wonder if my bones will ever bounce back at age 33.
But where the movies end is really only the beginning of a lifetime of reminding yourself that no, you can’t keep this up forever without causing lasting damage, without losing great opportunities. Once you set out trying to prove that you don’t need anything, you will very slowly and then very quickly find yourself in a place where you have actually lost everything. And by then it doesn’t matter anymore, because the only thing you think about is what you have or have not eaten.
There is so much more I can be than just someone who can lose weight. I’m still waiting for that movie, one where people recover, and slip, and recover, and slip, and fight and scream and eat. But maybe we need the movie version, maybe we need to believe that eating disorders can be solved with one family dinner. Admitting this is a lifetime struggle really sucks.
I won’t lie, constant vigilance sucks too. But I’m going to eat my damned bagel and move forward. Being nothing has no power any more, once you’ve seen what everything has to offer.
This post originally appeared on Medium.
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