CW: eating disorders
I have always felt an overwhelming need to prove myself due to my gender. When I moved to a selective, all-girls school, I became truly aware of what being a young woman meant: academically, professionally and personally. This need to prove myself was only exacerbated when I found myself surrounded by young women from all over my city, from different nationalities and financial backgrounds, who held different values, all with one thing in common – the expectation that they would excel academically.
Several times a year we would be told during assemblies about the ongoing assault that occurred on trams to and from school; men groping young women while they were in their school uniforms. Assemblies were dedicated to reminding us that we would be penalised if we didn’t wear our uniforms modestly, others instilling the ruthless pursuit of the highest possible ATAR in each and every student.
I had never overtly thought about what being a young woman meant for my sexuality. When I allowed myself to be aware that I had a sexuality – and somehow this was linked to cat calls, uniforms and heightened awareness on trams – I became aware that part of my sexuality was wanting to be with other women. This moment marked the beginning of my hunger.
Hunger is something I think about every day, whether it is of my years of self-starvation, or of needing to pursue a better, cleaner version of myself. These two things have been so intertwined at different times of my life that they have sometimes been the same thing to me. The diet that started my path to anorexia was something I pursued to replace what I felt were failed pursuits in other parts of my life: primarily, having sexuality. I saw this as so complicated and unclean because I wasn’t straight. Another was not being able to achieve the academic level that I felt everyone else around me could. Every day during my illness, I wrote about what I had achieved – how little I had eaten, how much I had exercised, how many kilograms I had lost. I wrote to myself; I am not smart, I am not pretty, I am not funny or kind or interesting – but I am so, so good at losing weight. In those letters I chastised my classmates for eating so much, for their lack of self-discipline – I took pleasure in how much I excelled in the pursuit of disappearing.
Anorexia nervosa was the one thing I thought I was good at. Ironically, the illness that I thought set me apart from the 900 other young women at my school wasn’t just mine – I was just so consumed by my own hunger that I didn’t notice the rampant hunger around me. Eating disorders plagued countless other students at the time, and they plague 15 per cent of women at some point during their lifetimes.
Living with an eating disorder, although you can’t stop eating completely, you can control every aspect of the food you do eat. Meals mark the cycle of our day. They can represent people’s relationships with their family, culture and religion. For me, meals represented my family and the cycle of my school day. It was so easy to ignore the failure I felt at school, the secret of my sexuality and my inability to cure my mother’s cancer, when I was occupied with how I had planned my meals and executed the consumption of them – always methodically, controlled and contained.
As a woman, you cannot contain or control your own sexuality because everyone else is allowed to have a say in how you present it. Kissing another woman in public is an act that others feel the right to comment on, as they do when it comes to what a woman wears and how many people she sleeps with. In the same way, your achievements – whether they are a promotion at work or being the mother of a child – are critiqued and judged by anyone privy to them, on the basis of your gender. Your life is shaped around avoiding harassment, sexual, verbal or physical, and this inevitably means that you become a smaller version of yourself.
By beginning to control your food and body in the rigorous pattern of an eating disorder, you do not worry about how your sexuality appears to others because the eating disorder has taken it from you. The deeper your hunger and the thinner you become, the less your body has the energy for desire. You lose your period, hair and curves, gaining a layer of baby hair all over your skin. You are no longer an object of desire – you are not a woman anymore. You are childlike, one dimensional, unable to want sex or even care about it. Your achievements are limited to the number on the scales in the morning, and every night you dream about the one thing you care about: food. You are a smaller version of yourself, but this process comes from within you, rather than from society. Sometimes I find myself missing how easy having an eating disorder was – my illness destroyed opportunities, relationships and took years of authentic living from me, but with it, I could ignore the complicated reality of being a queer woman.
Controlling food is a method of escape. Eating disorders are present in men and women, but overwhelmingly more so in women. Some people argue that it’s due to the media’s dialogue on women’s bodies, a product of perfectionism or a narcissist trait. I believe that it is an act of misguided rebellion against a society that seeks to control women’s sexuality.