Gay Women Don’t Get Eating Disorders…Or Do They?
by guest blogger: Rose B.
It’s July 3rd, 2017 and I stare at the round elevator button that will take me to the 13th floor. I don’t want to push it, I want to walk right out of the electric doors and pretend I never promised my therapist and friends that I would do this. The pristine elevator with its polished railing and spotless walls, the woman’s voice politely saying “going up” seems so in contradiction to how I feel. This elevator would never fall apart, this elevator would never be filled with disgust or be a disappointment. I’ve never wanted to be an inanimate object but suddenly, all I want to be is this elevator. Living a simple life where there are simple rules and a simple role for me.
I push the damn button, the polite lady says “going up” and with a burst of speed, the door opens 5 seconds later on a flawless looking floor, another reminder of the exact opposite way that I feel. I walk over to the receptionist who, of course, is flawless and I mutter the words that I never thought would be part of my life journey, “I’m here to check in for the partial hospitalization program”, she smiles and says “you must be Rose”. “No”, I want to shout, I’m actually not Rose, I swear to you, my body has been invaded by someone else because Rose, would never need to be here. Rose is a successful professional who has dedicated her life to social justice and education and community building and health and wellness and self- discovery and laughter and playfulness and, and, and. Rose would never need to be checking in for treatment for an eating disorder at 36 years old. But I don’t say any of that because Rose is also polite and reserved and a rule follower and doesn’t want conflict. I resignedly say “I am”.
Utterly numb, I go through introductions and get a binder that is of all colors pink, and they draw blood and weight me and I charge large sums of money onto my credit card and I smile and pretend that I’m ready and willing and open for this experience, when all I want to do is run away to the place that got me here. That dark, safe, hole in my soul that has protected me when I’ve been scared. That place where there are no expectations and no requirements. That secret place that I’ve kept hidden for so long, where my eating disorder has lived a healthy, long, successful life.
I feel like an oddball, like even in my eating disorder, I’ve suddenly failed. I am not the US weekly cover photo, of a 5’8 and 100 pounds hot blond, with long flowy hair, with stained white teeth and perfectly applied make-up. I’m 5’2 150 lbs with a shaved head, and maybe SPF 15 lotion on my face. I am not the stereotype for an eating disorder. Which is why I find myself at 36, one of the oldest people in this place, because I was able to lie to myself for so long that there was nothing really wrong.
As I Googled the EDCare facility, I remember clicking on the “about us” page and seeing picture after picture of women who all looked the same. Long hair, perfect smiles, professional attire, and it felt like I was going to be the first gay woman with an eating disorder that ever existed. Gay woman don’t have eating disorders. Aren’t we supposed to be carefree about how we look, “the ugly ones”, the ones that “guys won’t date”. Lesbian and eating disorder don’t correlate. Or maybe that stereotype is how I ended up here in the first place, feeling devalued as a human can do strange things to a person.
When I was eight, my mother would allow my sister and I to each keep 16 pieces of candy. I’m not sure where 16 came from, I’m the person who has to round every bill at a restaurant to have .00 cents, so 16 feels very imperfect, but maybe my keen negotiating skills led to adding just one more piece of candy. My mother is a phenomenal cook and cared about nutrition and fueling her family in the right way, this also led to a fear of White Processed Sugar, No Chocolate-only carob, ORGANIC FOOD ONLY, the microwave is the devil! So when Halloween rolled around, my mom was handing out pennies (yes, I was that house) and I was scavenging the neighborhood for the forbidden foods. I kept my 16 pieces of candy and then my sister and I had to fork over the rest to my father, who would enjoy the fruits of our labor. I remember sneaking into their bedroom and stealing candy and hiding the wrappers. The pattern of secretly eating began to unfold. Being told your worth is based on what you eat can do strange things to a person.
Are you a boy or a girl? I hate this question with a passion. In 5th grade, I looked pretty similar to how I look now. I had short hair and rocked sweatpants on the daily. I was a quiet, unassuming kid, who went about the business of school and walking home. An older boy began to seek me out every day after school and walk behind me for a block asking me repeatedly, are you a boy or a girl? Are you a boy or a girl? Are you a boy or a girl? I would whisper “girl” with my head down, too afraid to look him in the eyes. He would then laugh and walk away. I can still feel my feet on that sidewalk, I memorized every tree that I passed, 6 of them, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and then 6… the torture is over for the day. My body still tenses when I think of him behind me, my backpack the only barrier between us. I would try leaving from the side door of the school so I wouldn’t run into him but he was a determined little 6th grader and he always found me for our daily ritual, are you a boy or a girl? The problem was I didn’t know what I wanted to be, or that I even had a choice. I stuffed my pants with a sock and made every attempt to pee standing up, I emulated every athlete I could think of, Michael Jordan’s tongue, Hakeem Olajuwon’s finger wag, Nolan Ryan’s pitcher grunt. I only had men to look up to at the time, and I fit into their world. But I wasn’t biologically a boy and this painful ritual in the 5th grade was a daily reminder of what I lacked. Being bullied and keeping it a secret can do strange things to a person.
I left home at 16. It was a mixture of teenage angst, utter independence and my relationship with my dad. I felt more alone in my house than I did in the homes of strangers. I lived in six different homes over the next two years. I learned the survival skills of staying off the radar, not attracting attention and saying yes to everything. I was afraid to voice my opinions or rock the boat in any way because there was no backup plan. I only knew what it meant to earn love not to be loved. I learned to edit.. my words, my emotions, my thoughts, myself. I stopped allowing myself to show my thorns, I only thought the strong resilient, perfect Rose was acceptable. Abandoning your authentic self can do strange things to a person.
Being in recovery I’ve learned to say the word bulimia and not feel shame, I’ve learned that coming out as gay was easier than coming out as having an eating disorder. Because there isn’t something wrong with you if you’re gay, but you feel flawed if you have an eating disorder.
I’ve learned that the only way to stay in recovery is to recklessly and wholeheartedly love myself and to feel no shame in doing that. There is a difference between selfishness and self-care. There comes a time when I can’t continue to put others needs first because then I abandon my own. Abandonment is what got me here, surrendering is what will keep me in recovery. I will not forget my eating disorder history but I will forgive myself. Forgiveness is the antidote to fear. And I refuse to live in fear any longer.
Eating disorders do not discriminate. They affect people of all ages, racial/ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, gender identities and sexual orientations. Beginning to dismantle the overarching narrative of what an eating disorder ‘should look like’ is the first step to ensuring those who need treatment feel comfortable and confident finding it.