Content note: This article discusses eating disorders (including bulimia and anorexia), weight loss, and “thinspiration”.
It began with a love of tattoos: the permanence of art on an impermanent body, the buzz of the machine, the stinging and the bleeding and the healing. And by “it,” I mean how I taught myself to call my eating disorder “inspiration” — and thus non-existent.
I’d spend hours upon hours on Tumblr, looking at tattoos on women. At first, I was mesmerized by colors, technique, precision, the way ink sat on different parts of the body. Then, as my eating disorder (ED) started to take shape, what I really ended up doing was staring at thin women.
My searching for “tattooed women” was my veiled way of searching “thinspo” or “thin women.” I thought, I couldn’t really be sick if I wasn’t seeking out damaging images using the sickness’ language.
Since high school, I’ve attended predominantly white and wealthy institutions. I have often been the only Black person or person of color overall in a classroom. Most of my friends since high school have been white, and the kind of love and lust I came to know was white love and lust. I found myself falling for white boys; white boys who fell for my white friends. My tall, thin, white friends seemed to be irresistible, and my 5’4”, brace-faced brown self was no match for that.
I had no mirrors in my friend circle, no one I could look to and see myself reflected. Instead, I felt trapped in a “fun-house” version of my body — distorted reflections that made me appear bigger than I was, and my friends taller than they were.
In my head, the math was simple: something was wrong with my body. Something about my body had to change in order for the men around me to want me. Since I couldn’t change my skin color, it had to be my size. Something about me had to be akin to the bodies of the women I saw getting attention, not only in my immediate surroundings, but in the media as well.
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This was the first time I truly felt that my Blackness meant never having love, that my blackness was yet another weight for someone to carry. I felt like a monster no one dared try to tame.
I often overheard these boys’ conquests: that Black women were a foreign delicacy you laugh at as you tell yourself you’ll try them once.
How could I become more than a sexually desired body? How could I be the kind of Black these men would stay for?
My desire to be smaller was further reinforced by my depression and bipolar disorder. At this point in my early twenties, I hadn’t yet sought psychiatric help. I had come to terms with my supposedly perpetual brokenness — this permanent baggage — so seeing a therapist felt irrelevant.
Like my impending eating disorder, my thoughts ran illogically cyclical: I was broken, I needed to be fixed, I fixed myself by breaking myself down, which only made me feel more broken, and so on and so on and so on.
Even before I considered my actual weight, I’d always felt like a “heavy” person. So if I couldn’t abandon mental illness or my Blackness, how else could I make myself a lighter thing to carry, to love?
The Development of My Eating Disorder
Then came the cycle of binge-purge-restrict. But after a few months of doing this consistently (I had toyed with bulimia off and on for years), I got pretty good at restricting. I watched my waist shrink, my belly flatten, the pants I had kept for years “just in case” actually fit. Still, I was nothing like the women I compared myself to on the street. I’d catch my reflection in the subway train and storefront windows and think this wasn’t enough. I knew this because I watched as the same white boys passed me over for white girls.
So, I decided not only was I not doing enough, but that I needed to find something other than my friends and these boys to serve as a catalyst for my weight loss plan.
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And this is where Tumblr entered. This was a space I knew had hundreds of pages dedicated to eating disorders: images of extremely thin, sickly women who others were looking to for inspiration. Advice on the best “diets” to lose weight quickly. Quotes about wanting to see nothing but bone in the mirror.
I knew these pages weren’t for me. I had convinced myself that my eating disorder was somehow different from everyone else’s. My wanting to be thin was a necessity. I needed to attain it to attain something else. I needed to be smaller so I could finally be visible.
I hoped I’d be seen for being skinny before being seen as Black, that I could rope someone in with my thinness before they found out about my depression. Thinness was going to be my weapon. But I couldn’t use the language of someone with a real eating disorder, because that would mean admitting mine was real, too.
Masking My Eating Disorder Through Tattoos
My adoration of tattoos had begun at an early age, and it only grew as I got older. I loved the idea of my body being a canvas, of tattoos being a method of scarring with such magnificent outcomes. I wanted to be covered in tattoos. But now, at the height of my restrictive behaviors, I used tattooing as both motivation and punishment.
I’d scour Tumblr, scrolling and scrolling, past beautiful work on average women (of color) that I told myself I just wasn’t impressed by, until I found work on thin white women. I’d tell myself that in order for tattoos like hers and hers and hers to look good on me, I’d need to be as thin as her. Then, when I was that thin, with my tattoos, I’d finally be the “me” I always wanted to be.
One day, though, when I was getting enough results of the women I was trying to see, I explicitly searched for thin women with tattoos, and I couldn’t ignore my problem anymore. I stood in front of my mirror, closed my eyes, and told myself that when I opened my eyes, I would tell myself what I really saw in my reflection.
Therapy and Healing
I don’t remember how long after that revelation it was before I decided it was time to go to therapy. But I do know that had I not gone, I might never have crawled out of the dark hole I’d grown so accustomed to. My doctor had me keep a journal and told me to write in it every time I felt discouraged to eat. This not only showed me how unhealthy and violent my behaviors were, but how skewed my perspective on life was.
I had been looking at the world, friendship, love, and self in such powerfully painful ways.
The world was not out to get me, though there were obstacles in my way that were purposely built by capitalist structures to make me feel worthy of being hunted. My friends were my support system, not my competition. Love was not a consequence of body, but of connection.
I hadn’t expanded my circle or my life to include anything outside the microcosm of academic institutions. There were so many worlds outside of the one I’d tethered myself to.
And, I wasn’t broken. Being mentally ill did not make me less worthy of love or existence. Being Black did not make me less worthy of love or existence. I had simply not found the right person who could see me for all of my gifts.
More importantly, I had not yet become the person who could see all of that in me.
I still battle with disordered eating. Every day I make the conscious decision to eat. I know when it’s not healthy for me to weigh myself or look in the mirror, so I don’t. I wear clothes that fit and have thrown away the “just in cases.” I do the things I love: I write and perform. I’ve gotten better at loving myself. It is a process. Often, this process is one of unlearning all that we’ve been taught is wrong with us by the media, society, gender norms, our peers, and flawed and violent ideologies.
I recently bought myself three shades of lipstick I’d been eyeing for months, shades I thought were too big and loud for me because I was afraid I’d be too visible. I’ve already worn two of them, and the feeling I got when I looked in the mirror could only be described as pride and wonderment. I saw that I was beautiful, even in my loudness. And it’s little things like this, buying myself something I didn’t think I deserved, that prove to me that there are days I find myself worthy of my own love.
On days like those, I am reminded of this quote by poet Rudy Francisco: “Perhaps, we should love ourselves so fiercely, that when others see us, they know exactly how it should be done.”
Here’s to loving ourselves fiercely.
[Feature Image: A photo of a person with brown skin, curly dark hair, dangle earrings, and silver necklaces. They are positioned between two brick walls. Source: Dionysius Burton]