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August 16, 2019

Letting Go of Control: Healing my Eating Disorder by Embracing my Queerness.

 

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I thought I wanted to lose weight. I felt afraid, numb, and alone, so I devoted myself to the church of dieting, believing that it could lead me to happiness.

This is what we’re told, right? There are so many boxes we think we need to check to find happiness, and weight loss is one of the typically unquestioned ones. But, I checked that box. I lost weight. I wasn’t happy.

In fact, at my lowest weight, I was also my least happy.

I remember my dad’s secretary complimenting me, “oh my, you lost weight over vacation! That’s so hard—how did you do it?” I told her it was easy. It was easier trying to control my weight than admitting my truth, at least.

The summer after eighth grade, my family moved from Japan, where we had been living for the past 12 years, to Brazil. My dad had started his international education at the Escola Americana do Rio de Janeiro, and wanted to return to the city of his heart.

That summer, I also spent a blissful week of adventuring in New York City with one of my best friends from Japan, who had moved to New York City. During the day we went to the Met, took long walks in Central Park, ate bagels, and talked about everything in the sincere, earnest way of youth. Each night we would cuddle and talk late into the night.

The last night of my visit, she bravely led me into uncharted territory for us both.

“I want to kiss you,” she softly spoke from her bed. As long as I’d known her, I’d never heard her speak so softly.
“Okay.” I crawled up from my trundle bed to hers, and we put our lips together.
“That was nice.”
“Yeah.”
“Shall we do it again?”

I somewhat knew that I had been jealous of the boys she had made out with in seventh grade. I just didn’t know how much it would set off the fireworks in my heart and body to be the recipient of her desire.

“Somewhat knowing” had been a trademark of the exploration of my (queer) feelings. I would kind of recognize desire, but wouldn’t actually let myself feel or know it because it didn’t “fit” within the categorizations I had been handed.

After that night, I remember thinking really clearly to myself, “That was amazing. Yep, I’m definitely gay.” Such clarity. What a gift.

But then fear immediately clouded over my clarity as a form of protection. I tried to not know that I was gay, because if I knew that then I didn’t know what I would do.

Like all of us, I wanted love, acceptance, and belonging. If I shared my newly discovered truth, I didn’t know if I would get those things—from my family, teachers, and peers in my new school.

I didn’t really have friends yet in Rio. I thought my best friend in New York would support me through my international move, but it turns out that bringing up repressed sexuality is scary for everyone, and a wall erected itself between us. I didn’t know anybody else who was gay. I didn’t know how to be with all the uncomfortable feelings arising.

So I pushed my truth down. I pretended it didn’t exist. In other words, I pretended I wasn’t a sexual being. I pretended the desires of my body didn’t exist.

How could I relate to my body having desires that I wouldn’t allow? I needed something to fill the void of pushing my truth and desire down. I needed something to keep me company in the depths of my loneliness and disconnection with myself. Enter dieting.

“It seems like maybe you’re gaining a bit of weight. Maybe you could eat less and move more.” Mom, channeling society. She certainly did not mean any harm by this comment, and I don’t blame her for it. It wouldn’t have held any weight if it wasn’t so deeply approved and propagated by society.

Dieting was unequivocally “a good thing to do.” Packaged and sold by the 72 billion-dollar diet industry as the panacea for all of my problems.

The diet industry whispered seductively into my ear:

Unhappy? Dieting will make you happy.

Lonely? Dieting will make you attractive and therefore loved.

Feeling unworthy? Dieting will make you worthy.

Great! I wanted to be happy, loved, and worthy.

I couldn’t control homophobia. In other words, I didn’t feel agency around shifting external circumstances and couldn’t change who I was. So I unconsciously turned my attention to what I thought I could control—my weight.

I entered the trap of thinking that I could find an individual solution, on my own, to a systemic problem. And the individual solution I turned to wasn’t even related to the systemic problem!

Without understanding larger cultural context, we can drink in poison thinking it’s medicine. We can think that we should control ourselves on our own, instead of banding together to fight for a new way. This strategy of solely individual healing to systemic issues is particularly insidious when the solution we’ve been handed actually further embeds us in disempowered systems of control, like in the case of dieting.

Systemic problem equals homophobia. Individual attempt at a solution equals starve myself to lose weight.

Was starving myself an effective way of dealing with my sexuality? Focusing on weight loss did give me a sense of control when life and feelings felt so out of my control. Dieting gave me an anchor. Purpose. Self-worth. External validation. It gave me a way of relating to my “wrong” body that was societally approved.

It sort of worked, as far as coping mechanisms go. I sort of “forgot” about the gayness, the loneliness, and the fear. But I had anchored to the wrong harbor—a commitment to shrinking in service of patriarchy. And that came at a price. I lost my previously loving relationship with my body. I felt like I had control—but really, dieting controlled me.

Naomi Wolf helped me understand this truth in her book, The Beauty Myth, which helped usher in third wave feminism in 1990. She powerfully writes: “Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

I find myself vigorously nodding my head whenever I read or share this quote. When I severely controlled my food intake, I felt a certain sort of mastery that people seek when dieting. But ultimately, I felt controlled by the compulsion to limit food in order to lose weight. Losing weight (and being the best student possible) became the main foci of my life. I felt like I lived to control my body, rather than simply living my life, in partnership with my body.

Ultimately I felt empty, not just physically, but emotionally, and spiritually. I cherished my hunger, as if it proved my worth.

My real thoughts, feelings, and desires still existed, no matter how far I had pushed them down. I felt even more lonely because I lacked a real connection with other humans. Most importantly, I also lacked connection to myself, because I hid my own truth and lied to myself.

Just like I knew, deep down, that I was gay, I also knew, deep down, that the way I was relating to food and my body was not good. I knew it wasn’t sustainable, or healthy. Yet, I lived in the lie for a couple years. I watched myself like watching an engrossing movie, totally caught up in the plot.

Certain moments of pain punctured the illusion, and I would become momentarily, painfully aware of the cycle of harm I found myself caught in. I’ll always remember the moment of breaking down crying about eating a pastry. I came home tired and stressed after school. As per usual, I hadn’t eaten much that day. My mom offered me a pastry. I accepted it, ate it, and immediately burst into tears. I felt terrible about myself. How could I have been so thoughtless so as to eat this “bad” food? I both beat myself up, and at the same time, knew that I must be caught in a nightmare to have that strong a reaction to eating a pastry.

When I got weighed and shared that I lost my period at an annual checkup, my doctor told me I may have a “borderline eating disorder.” (I fully support everyone having their own process and relationship with diagnostic labels. Sometimes, they’re deeply oppressive and harmful. And, sick is sick. You don’t need a diagnosis to be suffering and deserving of support.) In my world of looking up to authority figures at that time, this one diagnostic statement supported me in beginning my healing process. In my eyes, it legitimized my struggle. The doctor telling my parents also outsourced what I had been screaming through my behaviors. I could finally acknowledge, to myself and my parents, “Okay, it’s true. I am not okay.”

So, how did I heal?

First, and most importantly, I found love and acceptance through changing my external circumstances. Often in the personal development world, we’re told to work on our internal landscape. But our external landscape matters, too.

In my case, I moved back to Japan and lived with my best friend and her family, attending the American School in Japan, which had visible support of gay students. I saw a kid walking the hallway who had a rainbow pin on his backpack and thought to myself, “oh my God, could it be? Could he be gay?”

That kid came from the San Francisco Bay Area. By arriving at the school already out, he inspired a sea of others to come out. We ended up going to prom together as friends. I didn’t have to pretend with him. I met someone else who became one of my best friends on one of the first days of school when I saw her writing a letter to her girlfriend. “Oh my God, could it be? Like, girlfriend girlfriend?” She came from Ohio and was my first “real American friend” who hadn’t grown up outside of the States. I found her way of thinking fascinating, and similarly to the first girl I kissed, I fell in love with her through hours and hours of conversation.

I joined the Gay Straight Alliance and had my first taste of advocacy, and the healing potential of collective action.

I certainly couldn’t even have begun to address homophobia completely on my own as things were for me in Brazil. Going back to my old school in Japan, I helped organize “Ally Day.” I remember so clearly how much it meant to read “gay? fine by me,” on the shirts we distributed. I began to feel accepted—by others and subsequently by myself. Bit by bit, I felt better in my own skin.

After coming out to myself and a few select friends, I began to eat and laugh again.

Letting myself eat again, I felt insatiable. I ate so much. After years of starving myself, I was so hungry. I was hungry for love, and I was also hungry for food. I didn’t know how to reconcile my hunger and dieting. My allegiance to the church of dieting lingered. I felt the cognitive dissonance of somebody who has left the comfortable, known challenges of an abusive relationship (dieting) and hasn’t yet found a new way of relating to the world (trusting my body and myself).

How did I break away from dieting and create a new way of being? First up, I studied and learned from those who critiqued diet culture. To critique diet culture, I needed to be okay without using it as a coping mechanism. I needed to feel positive enough about my life and myself that I didn’t need to escape it. I needed space, safety and support in order to be able to undergo this work.

And I asked questions:

>> Where did these thoughts, feelings, behaviors associated with diet culture come from?
>> Are they actually true?
>> Who does me believing in diets serve?

What did I learn? Diet culture feeds us lies. Remember those seductive promises diet culture lured me in with, telling me that it could make me happy, loved, and worthy? All lies that benefit corporate and patriarchal interests—not us.

So then, if I had been fed lies, what’s the truth? I found Health At Every SizeⓇ and fat activists (like the wonderful Ragen Chastain) who argued that diets don’t make folks thin, and that thin isn’t necessarily even healthier anyway. What?!

If you’re like me and want to really understand the science behind this, I recommend Dr. Linda Bacon’s pivotal book which put HAESⓇ on the map. For those looking for a quicker read, I recommend this excellent blog post by Isabel Foxen Duke.

What is unhealthy is fatphobia, and how this manifests in shaming, bullying, and discrimination. That has literal negative affects on our health.

Weight stigma harms. When somebody is bullied on a daily basis, as is common for obese Americans, that has a deep impact. Dr. Linda Bacon recently wrote an article on this point that went viral: “Fat Is Not the Problem—Fat Stigma Is.”

Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong” unpacks the harm caused by the cruel war on fat in the United States. I mean, think about it—when does a war ever help anybody except those profiting off the harm?

I learned about how much diets harm people. I learned I was not alone in being affected by the twin evils of fatphobia and diet culture. (Nearly half of 3 to 6-year-old girls say they worry about being fat!) All this learning gave me fuel to get mad at the diet industry. I directed the blame I had toward myself to the appropriate target. I got mad at the industry and the cultures which had shoved this misguided system down my throat.

So I broke up with dieting. Next, I needed to relearn to trust my hunger and my body. Without having heard of her at the time, what I did mirrored what Caroline Dooner teaches in her amazingly funny and smart F*ck It Diet. (I highly recommend her recent book, complete with stories and prompts to guide you.)

I ate, without rules.

I practiced acting as if I didn’t care if I gained weight (even if I did). Because I knew anything had to be better than my disordered relationship with food. I knew it wasn’t normal to burst into tears from eating a pastry.

I learned to listen to and trust my body and myself. I learned by starting from the desire. I didn’t trust my body or myself. But I knew I wanted to. I started with whispering to my body, and particularly my belly: “I want to love you.” I shifted my love to myself, and my anger to the systems which had destroyed that love.

I had to recognize that just like my gayness wasn’t a problem to control, fatness isn’t a problem to control. It’s homophobia and fatphobia that we need to battle.

I needed to learn hear from others why and how I could relearn to trust myself. If you’d also like some external support on your journey, I created a resource for you. I interviewed four of the folks I mentioned in the above section (Ragen Chastain, Dr. Bacon, Isabel Foxen Duke and Caroline Dooner), along with 25 other leaders, in my 2016 Queer Body Love Speaker Series. If you’re interested in learning more about intuitive eating, fat liberation, and body trust, among other topics, from a predominantly queer lineup of speakers, check it out. I also have a ton of other suggested people to follow here on my resources page.

I starved myself in a misguided attempt to find acceptance. Ultimately, I had to do the work of accepting myself. I had to accept so many levels.

Accept my queerness.
Accept my hunger.
Accept my body.
Accept my emotions.

Basically, I had to accept my humanness.

Acceptance takes work. It is not a passive process. It takes support. I had a tremendous amount of luck, privilege, and support to be able to do this work so that diet culture, fatphobia, and homophobia didn’t steal decades of my life.

In addition to studying these topics in college (particularly in “Cultural Politics of the Body”—thanks Professor Molé!), I participated in a semester-long residential leadership program at a yoga center, which gave me a supported opportunity to heal. I got to integrate these intellectual understandings on an embodied level. I got to practice slowing down and really listening to myself on all of the levels. I got to practice trusting in a supportive container.

What really supported me was having people guide me, again and again, to ask my body: “what are you feeling? What do you want?”

If you’d like a suggestion for relearning trust in your body—I suggest you start with a breath, and then those questions above. Check in with your body. Maybe it already knows what it needs to take the next small, sweet step toward healing.

Personally, I couldn’t have done it on my own. I share my story in the hopes that some tidbit might be helpful to you on your own journey.

Now, I have a relationship of loving gratitude and also neutrality with food and my body. My energy and attention goes to my passions, my relationships, and the new world I want to be part of creating where we celebrate and respect every single body.

What about you? Do you have any habits that might seem “good” to the external society, but are really tactics to avoid something about yourself that you need some support to face, accept, and ultimately maybe even celebrate? I see you. No shame. We all do it. Coping mechanisms are basically necessary for navigating this world which tries to beat so many of us down in an attempt to maintain the current power structure.

And, together, with mutual support, we can take back our power. We can recognize when it’s time to do the next level of work of nourishing ourselves in deeper ways.

Let’s stop starving ourselves and start nourishing ourselves.

Especially those of us who are marginalized in various ways.

I know this is hard. I know this takes work. It takes community. It takes support. And it is possible.

~

Elizabeth Cooper

author: Elizabeth Cooper

Image: author's own

Image: elephantjournal / instagram

Editor: Julie Balsiger

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