In honor of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, TBINAA will feature stories that explore eating disorders at the intersections of our identities, sharing stories about ED from the groups that are often absent from the discussion. We believe that there must be space to tell the story of EVERY body and we are grateful to those who have shared their stories with us, so that we might share them with you. If you are struggling with an eating disorder, there is help. Toll free, confidential Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You are not alone.
by Christie Ladner:
Having cerebral palsy and using a wheelchair can truly suck.
I need help accessing the toilet. If I’m out, and need to go, I have two options: wet my pants or hold it. My body can’t freely do what it wants, because my care is scheduled. This lack of control is frustrating and it’s tempting to punish my body for not following my plan. Washroom accidents are messy and inconvenient; not just for me, but also for caregivers who can be lazy.
There is an unspoken hierarchy of physical disability: the more physically independent you are, the higher up you are on the hierarchy, and the easier your life will be. It’s unfair, but reality. I’m close to the bottom, because I need help with everything, except speaking standing, and eating. I’m small, so it’s easy to move me, but that’s a different story.
Being disabled is hard. Being disabled and overweight, or even chubby, is harder. Paid caregivers complain that it’s difficult to dress, position or pull us, regardless of our size. To staff, we’re just work, and it’s our job to make their job as easy as possible.
Taken to extremes, it’s easy to understand how I developed Anorexia Nervosa. My struggles with body image aren’t unique, but it’s unique to starve oneself to convenience others. We’re discouraged to change, because it means caregivers might need to work harder. Change is the enemy among a minority frequently pushed into a uniform box.
Control, for any disabled person, is elusive. Someone we likely didn’t choose, does our personal care in a mechanical manner. We’re expected to have the same needs every day, regardless of how our lives may shape up on a particular day.
Disordered eating is a way to rebel against routine and to take care of ourselves in a world that doesn’t even consider us.
None of us has time or energy to worry about being model thin because we are just trying to get out of bed and on with life. Our major concern is how we’re going to be lifted, use the bathroom, and access transportation. It’s functionally easier if someone is small, and we get praised for it. Positive feedback reinforces the idea that to gain weight is off the table because it will hurt others. We’re rarely encouraged to question if we’re hurting ourselves.
Eating disorders are a tool allowing us to become numb to things that can’t be changed. It’s hard to recall getting overlooked in a store when you’re fantasizing about food because you’re hungry.
Recovery has taught me to speak up for myself, and that my best interest must come first. I eat three meals a day and treats at night, dispelling the myth that eating at night causes weight gain. Caregivers still find reason to complain about me, but I ask for what I need. My body isn’t perfect, but it survived years of and restriction and binging and, for that, I owe my body everything.
by Erica A. Dixon:
I remember a picture that we looked at in health class once during a unit on eating disorders. A white girl who was skeletally thin looked into a mirror, and the mirror reflected back a body that was portrayed as overweight. We discussed how anorexia is typified by body dysmorphic disorder; how people who struggle with anorexia were terrified of gaining weight. For many people, this experience rings true. But for me and for my body, my experience was different.
When I looked in the mirror I didn’t see a girl who was overweight. I saw a black girl with skeletal dysplasia, who stood at 4’5 while all of her peers were a foot taller than her if not more. I saw a girl whose body had more metal in it at age 25 from surgeries than many people would have in their lifetimes. I saw a body that had been abused and raped. I saw a body that was deformed, unlovable and not deserving of existence.
Being in my body has never been pleasant experience. I went to a private school with a group of majority white peers, and from a young age I realized that my body didn’t look like theirs. My skin didn’t look like theirs did, my body didn’t grow like theirs did, and as we got older, my body didn’t attract the same attention as theirs did. I knew that my body was different, too different to be acceptable. Too different to be loveable.
As a young child, being in my body was uncomfortable and unpleasant, but it wasn’t until I was 11 that I felt the full weight of exactly how dangerous being in my body could be. At 11, I experienced my first incidence of sexual violence. I didn’t know where to turn, or what to do. So I swallowed the experience, shoving it down, burying it deep within my consciousness with the promise that the memory would never see the light of day. 11 was also the year I had my first major surgery to straighten my bowed legs. The recovery included my mother cleaning the 8 pins that held my bones in place twice a day with peroxide. Being in my body was physically and emotionally too painful, too confusing, and too shameful. So I separated myself into two parts: a body that housed my trauma, whose pain I couldn’t control but whose needs I could ignore, and my mind, the creative, dreaming part of myself that I could cultivate, shape, and most importantly, be in control over. That is how my eating disorder started, through a conscious decision to ignore when my body needed food, sleep, comfort and love.
I used restriction as a way to keep myself small. If I kept myself small, I could keep myself safe. If I could keep my desires, my body in check, I wouldn’t be hurt anymore. This backfired spectacularly during college when I was raped. I started “forgetting” to eat until 6 or 7pm. I went for days on one or two meals. It didn’t cross my mind, even once, that I had an eating disorder.
Then, I got to graduate school. New friends noticed that I rarely ate everything on my plate, if I ate with them at all. I started intentionally seeing how long I could go without eating, how long I could push myself until I broke. A therapist I had been seeing referred me to the eating disorder team (psychiatrist, nurse and nutritionist) at my university. I refused to admit I had an eating disorder, because “Black girls don’t have eating disorders.”
My eating became more restricted as I wrestled with the health professionals for control. I was threatened with intensive out patient treatments in programs whose websites did not have a single person of color on them. I spent hours googling “black girls with eating disorders” just to know if there was someone out there who looked like me, who had an eating disorder like mine.
I have since stopped working with the school treatment team and now work closely with my therapist, a Black woman who uses the phrase “capitalist patriarchal society” in almost every session. We follow a model of intuitive eating. Intuitive eating requires embodiment, it requires that I let go of the artificial brain/body dichotomy I set up and to reclaim the space that my body, my whole body, takes up.
Taking up space means accepting my body. Accepting my body means accepting my trauma. It means reaching out a hand to that scared 11-year-old girl and telling her its ok. Telling the 18 and 19-year-old in me that my rapes were not my fault. The surgeries were not my fault. That my body is not broken. Beating my eating disorder has become an inherently political and revolutionary act.
Making the active choice to take care of myself, to care about myself enough to eat an apple, or ice cream or a cheese burger is saying f*** you to my rapists. It’s saying f*** you to a society that thinks that Black and Brown bodies are disposable. To a society that thinks women should live in fear. To a society that treats bodies that are not the “norm” as oddities in a circus side show.
The young woman I see in the mirror now is still terrified and anxious, but she is also strong, and hopeful. The body I see, my body, is scarred, imperfect, whole and enduring. It is deserving of love, comfort and kindness, even though I’m still struggling. To those Black and Brown girls and women wondering if there is anyone else out there like them, struggling like they are with an eating disorder, please know you are not alone.
TBINAA is an independent, queer, Black woman run digital media and education organization promoting radical self love as the foundation for a more just, equitable and compassionate world. If you believe in our mission, please contribute to this necessary work at PRESSPATRON.com/TBINAA
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[Headline Image Description: A greyscale photo of a person in a wheelchair outside on a city street. They are wearing a hat, a peacoat and pants. There is an unidentifiable item in their lap.]
Feature Image Photo Credit: by afri: