The Disappearing Act: Fighting Disordered Eating as a Masculine-of-Center Woman

Yesterday I went on a date with my fiancée. We were getting her engagement ring resized (too big the first time around) and there’s a French place just across the street from the jeweler. They serve, hands down, the best crêpes I’ve had since I lived in Paris. So yesterday for lunch I had: one La Fin du Monde beer (made in Quebec, my favorite beer right now); one buckwheat crêpe with scrambled eggs, swiss cheese and caramelized onions; half a sweet crêpe with melted chocolate, toasted coconut and coffee ice cream (Abby and I split one because they’re massive); coffee, just to get myself out of the food coma so I could drive us home from Philadelphia.

And I enjoyed every last fucking bite of it. Every time we treat ourselves to Beau Monde crêpes, it’s an experience and I remember how excited I am that the world has such good food in it. I was delighted by every aspect of our meal: how it looked, how it tasted, how it felt to sit outside on a hot day with a cold beer. I was delighted right down to the cow-shaped creamer that spits half-and-half out of its mouth when you tilt it.

Delight is my end state.

I can’t muster two fucks to rub together when it comes to my gender presentation. I just want to look like a fancy gentleman. I don’t mind getting “sir” from train conductors and baristas, although I use she/her pronouns. I did used to present more femininely — well, like a “dirty hippie.” I had mono-length hair down to the top of my butt. I got all my clothes from a thrift store (ripped jeans were the best find) and I smelled like patchouli. And you know what? I would actually be just as happy looking like this now (although I doubt I’d ever get hired to do anything ever). Whatever, for real. No fucks to give.

I do give a fuck about my ability to eat things, though.

Have I told you that I used to be an actor? Well, as much of an actor as an undergraduate puppy can really be, but hey. I considered myself an actor. Though I wasn’t a part of my university’s conservatory, we had a lot of overlap with their students and their classes. Once I overheard another MFA student talking to my acting teacher. The other MFA student was detailing her juice cleanse. “I’m already down eight pounds!” she said.

“I don’t really think you need to lose weight,” my acting teacher said.

“Ugh,” she said, ignoring him. “You know, even when I drop, like, most of the fat off my body, my dress size is still an eight.”


“Isn’t that sad?”

He didn’t really get it. But he was a he, and free from many of the expectations the industry places on women’s bodies. He was going bald, actually, and I don’t think that mattered when he was cast in things. I got it, though. Deeply. I understood. Because similarly, if I as a person who is five feet ten inches tall drop to 128 pounds, the tiniest I can get my dress size is an eight. My bones, with the minimum amount covering them, are a size eight. My shoulder width is my shoulder width. And even with a “thigh gap,” my thigh bones still exist, as does my pelvis. We are supposed to be tall, waif-like and look permanently Photoshopped — and it’s all supposed to be effortless. You’re supposed to be able to do that and eat half a pizza and say “I love  food! I eat all the time! No, I just look like this.” But I couldn’t do that. I had to eat one slice of pizza for the whole day and say the same thing.

No woman is exempt, either. I heard a faculty acting teacher in my later undergraduate years tell someone a bit older than me what they needed to do for their MFA auditions. Yeah, she talked about talent and practice. But she also said, “and get to the gym. I don’t mean to lose weight, but like, get toned.” This person? The person with the MFA audition coming up in a few months? She was short and tiny and toned already. But she was a she.

And I looked down at my skinny-ass unhealthy body that was still a size eight, and I looked at my track record for playing best friends, quirky side roles and heroin addicts (all of which, I must admit, were amazing fun to play). And maybe that’s when I started to say fuck this bullshit. I dunno, there wasn’t really one single moment. There rarely is when you’re not writing a fictional work with a story arc and everything. When you see a play or a film, the character learns their lesson once and changes their behavior. It’s expedient. The characters in my real life, though; most of them have to learn their lesson over and over and over again.

For the first half of college, I was eating no more than 800 calories a day (by my pseudo-science estimations, of course). And I also went to the gym or to a group fitness class every single day of the week. I even went to the gym on Christmas those years. No breaks.

Except I did eat holiday meals like I would never eat again. That was the one break I allowed myself. Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. On those days, I could eat as much as I wanted. And usually I wouldn’t want to eat again for a day or two after, that’s how full I was.

I also, every day, burned a thousand calories (again, estimation pseudo-science style) on a mini step machine I kept in my dorm room. I woke up so early to get my steps in.

I drank a lot of diet soda. There were no calories in it, and it made me feel full. The bubbles, I think.

I was tired all the time — yeah, I was also taking 21 credits the second half of my freshman year, but looking back on that workload, it shouldn’t have been that crazy. It shouldn’t have felt as crazy as it felt. I am the kind of person who relishes in her ability to take 21 credits. But I guess when you don’t put gas in the car, it can’t climb the hill, you know?

So to stay awake, I drank coffee. I cut down on the cream and sugar until I was able to drink it black. I hate black coffee. I have always hated black coffee. I hated the black coffee while I was drinking the black coffee. But it wasn’t about being delighted by the things I consumed any more. It was about staying awake. It was about being able to perform. Literally, it was about being able to perform.

I became a group fitness instructor. I taught kickboxing. Sometimes I taught it without eating breakfast.  Or without eating anything. Miraculously, I never passed out.

There was a woman in one of my classes who was skeletal. And I always thought, poor her. She really has a problem. But when I talked to my boss, there was nothing we could do about it unless she passed out in class. And she was right, it wasn’t our business. Passing out, it seemed, was the threshold.

The confirmation that I was doing a good thing to my body didn’t just come from fellow actors and people in the theatre world. I mean, it also came from there — I got more roles when I wasn’t eating right than when I was — and it certainly wasn’t about talent or focus, I was barely awake. It was coming from other places too: I went back to my home town to vote in my freshman year. I’d dropped a lot of weight really quickly (in just the few months since I’d been away) and I ran into my best friend’s mom at the polling place.

“You look really good,” she said. She had no idea. Not many people did. “Like, really great! Good job!”

“Yeah,” I said back. “I’m working really hard not to gain the freshman fifteen.”

My mother just gave me the side eye. She knew something was up. It was too fast.

The confirmation also came from shopping.

In high school, I had a brief stint where I started wearing men’s pants. I got so tall that the pants at the places where all my friends shopped weren’t long enough. You could almost hear those pants shriek with the effort of reaching toward my ankles. And they didn’t even come close. But I’d try to pair them with feminine tops and I never looked quite right. I hated the way I dressed, but I also hated the feeling of wearing waders. It wasn’t until I discovered women’s jeans with a 34 inch inseam that I could ditch the men’s pants. All I wanted to look like was circa 1969. I tried very hard to find bell bottoms.

It wasn’t long before even those pants didn’t fit. The more I developed, the more I felt like a sausage trying to squeeze into a casing that had already expelled its contents.

If I didn’t eat, I could shop and actually find clothes that fit me in all the places. All I wanted to do was walk into a store, any store at which my peers shopped, and buy a goddamn dress in a size, any size, and have it fit.

And you know the shittiest part? Yeah, I’m tall and larger in my bones and all. But I’m by no means big — I never have been. What must this fucking toxic environment be like for people bigger than I am?

In health class growing up we were always fed the narrative that people with body dysmorphia had no idea what their body looked like. That they would look in a mirror and see themselves at 300 pounds, even if they were at a cool and unhealthy (or even healthily) 128. Hell, even if they dropped lower than that.

That was never my experience. It is not my experience right now.

Instead, when I look in the mirror, I see the possibility of me weighing 300 pounds. And that’s enough. Believe me, that’s enough to do a number on anyone.

Two big things happened. One in 2008, one in 2009.

The first thing that changed was that my grandfather was murdered.

The second thing that changed was that I moved to Paris.

Both of these shook my patterns up, a little. They didn’t erase my now completely fucked up relationship to food, but they went a long way to fixing it. And I don’t think I would have gone as far in so little time if they hadn’t happened together.

My grandfather was murdered a month before I left. And when I got to Paris, I just really wanted to live. Like, as hard as a straight-laced control freak was capable of living. I still didn’t try any drugs, not even on that beach during our vacation in Barcelona when I was offered. But I did make sure to try everything, food-wise. Liquor-wise. Coq au vin, yes please. Escargot, you got it. The fresh-baked baguette from the baker on the corner that I swear to God, even though we were in Bâtiment B and were a way back from the road, I could smell. Yes, hell yes I will eat that. Crêpes of all kinds. Even these little mushrooms — I think mushrooms in the States taste like chlorine, but I liked them in Paris. Un grec — a sandwich made of mystery meat that got shaved off a rotating spit named, politically incorrectly, for their generally Greek purveyors. Absinthe, check. Calvados, check. Salade chèvre chaud, double triple check, that one was my favorite. Anything my roommate cooked (I am the worst cook) check check check. I ate my way through France.

And that’s not even counting the other countries I ate my way through — paella, proscuitto on cantaloupe, gelato, carbonade flammande, fries with mayonnaise all over them (the best way, I’m sorry y’all), spatzel and rouladen, some mystery meat on a bun in the Czech Republic — I said yes to everything that didn’t properly make me gag (sorry frogs legs, you and I were just never destined to get on).

I loved every mouthful because in the back of my mind, yeah, I was saying “Well, what if I never see food again?” But it was contextualized far differently. What if someone decided to end my life, like someone decided for my grandfather, and I really never did see food again? Like really really? Not in the self-manufactured way that I’d been doing, but truly never even laid eyes on it again because I wouldn’t ever have eyes again. The jury is still out for me on an afterlife, really, and though I want to believe in one, how do I know it includes fries with mayonnaise on them?

I got good and chubby in Paris. And then I went shopping for my birthday dress. I was turning 21 and I was having a tea party at Marriage Frères, for which I needed something other than tattered bell bottoms and a thrift store leather jacket. The lady behind the counter said something I will never forget: “Maybe you should go back to the United States, where dresses will fit.” It was smug. It was in French. She might have thought I didn’t speak French. I hung the dress (largest size in the store, still didn’t fit) back up and walked out. Little did she know the dresses in the US wouldn’t fit either.

I started jogging that day. I wish I liked jogging. I have never been a person who likes pointless cardio. I still go jogging. I am still not very good at it. Or very good at enjoying it, at least not all the time. But it’s like swallowing medicine. I know it’s good for me.

Once I got ill in Paris and barfed a lot. I admired the way I looked in the mirror after having purged everything. But I didn’t like vomiting. I didn’t want to ruin my teeth.

I didn’t want to stop eating again either. Food is awesome. Delight is awesome.

It was a time where I learned the same lessons over and over again, banging my head into walls where I thought maybe there could be doors.

In 2012, I got out of an incompatible if not abusive relationship with a masculine of center lady who really liked it when I wore heels and red toenail polish, even though her type had historically been butches. I met the woman who would wind up my fiancée. I learned that I wanted to be a writer, not an actor. And I ran out of fucks to give about trying to squeeze myself into women’s clothing that just wasn’t made for me.

So, with the help of that same maybe-sort-of-abusive person, I went to Express and bought my first outfit comprised entirely of men’s clothes. “I don’t know what happened since we broke up, but you’re cool now.” That might have been the first privilege that presenting masculinely afforded me, the ability to now be cool in a way that my uncomfortable feminine-presenting ass never was.

The second privilege it afforded me was the ability to walk into a store, any store at which my peers shopped, and pick out something that fit me in all the places. And that size was usually a small. Medium, max. As I looked in the mirror on that first day in the too-hot Express dressing room, I said, “Well. At least I’m not trying to get hired as an actor like this.”

I got a taste of something I had never known — shopping in the men’s department afforded my body the opportunity to take up the amount of space it actually takes up. Masculine people are afforded the privilege of space. Feminine people aren’t. Feminine people are supposed to be so small that they disappear. That they maybe make themselves disappear in that quest for lightness, for smallness, for compactness. Like flowers being pressed until they’re flat. Not all feminine people do it, but I think most of them feel the pressure.

I’ve never been to a therapist in my life, not a single one. I dunno, with the exception of the three year period where I didn’t eat, I’ve just never felt like anything going on in my head was negatively impacting my life in ways I couldn’t deal with myself. That might be an unhealthy thing, but I’m really happy right now. So if it ain’t broke, you know?

But specifically, with the whole disordered eating thing, I just never felt comfortable claiming an actual eating disorder as my experience. I always figured people with eating disorders, like the people with eating disorders they feature in Lifetime movies or on daytime reruns of Judging Amy, hit rock bottom. They have a heart attack. They become unable to function. And they can’t drag themselves out of it by their fingernails and sheer willpower. Because my effects weren’t so severe, it’s hard for me to claim eating disorder as my deal. It’s probably why I never saw a therapist for it, or told a doctor. Probably because, in the world I was in, this was just a normal, everyday part of being a feminine woman who wanted to put her feet on a stage. So many women ate this way and no one talked about it. My discomfort in claiming eating disorder remains. It’s probably why I’ve typed 3,685 words to this point without once typing the word “anorexia.” It doesn’t feel right, somehow. Like I’m appropriating an identity that I have not earned the rights to. I haven’t paid the dues in ill health and anguish.

The same holds true for butch. There’s such history with that identity. A community. A shared narrative, though not an identical one. And I don’t fit with that. If I were naturally and without an unhealthy-relationship-to-food a skinny tiny pixie person, I’d probably still present very femininely. I’d probably still be striving for a look straight out of ’69 (much to my fiancée’s dismay). I lay claim to masculine of center, it feels better. More open. I’ve also been described as Cotton Candy of Center and Fairy Prince(ss). I’ll take both of those, happily. But butch? It feels like I’m co-opting something. I haven’t paid the dues in dysphoria and oppression.

I also rarely talk about this with anyone not particularly close to me, because I feel like this might be an Upopular Opinion. It certainly isn’t politically expedient, the idea of a disorder impacting gender presentation. It deviates from the idea that innate-ness is more valid somehow. It lends itself to this weird straight-people narrative that masculine women are damaged in some way. Which is also fucking bullshit. Then again, I also don’t feel damaged. I never have. I feel experienced. I feel afraid, sometimes, to share exactly how much my fucked relationship with food and my body has contributed to the dapperness of my current wardrobe, the length of my hair. Dysphoria isn’t a thing I’ve ever felt. Dysmorphia is.

I’d also like to think that my community will understand — that we’ve all arrived at gender in very unique and specific ways, exactly how we were meant to. I guess we’ll find out.

The other day, I was given a tee shirt. It’s cute — it’s an Etsy print, it says “Code as Craft.” I got it at the Lesbians Who Tech conference (which was kickass, as usual). It’s a women’s cut, sure, but the woman behind the table giving away the freebies said “all we have is women’s extra-large.” I thought, great. Extra-large? Yeah, that’ll be fine, it’ll probably even be a little baggy on me the way I like tee shirts to be.

I got home and tried it on. It was tight on me. Not a little bit tight, like. Really tight. Like the Feminist Hulk in their tiny purple shorts tight.
My fiancée said, “No, that can’t be an extra-large. Is it, like, maybe a kid’s extra-large?”

I looked at the tag. “Made in USA. Women’s. American Apparel. XL.”

You know, it hasn’t been very long since I started presenting masculinely.  Somehow it’s felt like a long enough journey that I thought at least something would have changed. But no — apparently the maximum allowable size for feminine female people is basically a child’s extra-large.

We are not children and that’s some bullshit. We deserve to take up space. Our bodies deserve to take up space. Our words and feelings are allowed volume. And I will not once again give up delight in favor of black coffee and sending myself through the flower press.

Feature image via Shutterstock

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A.E. Osworth

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 543 articles for us.


  1. The first two parts are excellent and then I had to stop reading because I used to read things like this

    Things with numbers and This Is What I Ate When I Was Sick Out Of My Mind info

    Without missing the sensation of starving

    Even though when I starved it was all I did, all I thought about, my entire personality a torturous calorie counting machine

    I can eat now and it’s so wonderful

    I’m glad you too found the delight in food

    Maybe one day I will be able to read this the whole way through

    • I mean I used to read things like this for Tips, and now when I read them my head goes back to that place

      And it’s such a slippery slope into such a miserably deep pit

      I went crazy pulling myself out of it, like literally insane, and now have a lot of scars on my arms and legs and an intimate knowledge of the snack situation at the local psych ward

  2. As a size 8 lesbian who has struggled with every form of disordered eating you can count (inspired by my longtime dream of being a professional ballerina), this was both heartbreaking and so healing. I sat here, reading this, in my first ever pair of men’s pants. I’m wearing a size 32 – which you can’t even find in every store. I feel confident and good about the way my thighs fill out the material. I feel like I’m safe and able to take up space. I was always somewhat feminine until the last few years, but men’s clothes have allowed me to pull out of a recent hardcore relapse into anorexia and your experience resonates so clearly to me. Much love!

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