To be a woman in the Western world is to live under the hold of normative femininity — the surreptitious web of supposed truths about the correct attitudes and appearances of womanhood. They are cruel and demanding lies built on misogyny and the contempt of women and their potential. To be a woman in the Western world is to understand that your worth stems from the ability to be thin, passive, agreeable, servile and beautiful. A woman who achieves these qualities — so the lie goes — is on the path to the freedom of fulfillment. Simone de Beauvoir told us that women are made, but what is it that we are created to be? Self-loathing sex objects barred from the wholeness of human experience. We are coerced and cajoled into strict standards of acceptable femininity, a ‘…narrow coffin of performance and perfection’, according to Laurie Penny‘s Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism. In an effort to survive under the prescriptions of our society, many women find themselves under the thrall of eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and other disordered eating habits that can be just as dangerous despite not being pathologised.
Although eating disorders are a well studied and often written about area of mental health, I feel that as a consequence of the heterosexism and racism of our society the influence of race and queerness on the development of destructive eating patterns has been sorely neglected. The truth is that it is not just rich, white, straight girls with perfectionist tendencies in one hand and issues with their mothers in the other who fall prey to the vicious cycles of starving, binging, purging. I know this first hand, I know this with every sinew of myself. I know this as a brown, queer girl who was diagnosed with bulimia when I was just fifteen years old. Not despite my lesbianism and my Blackness, but because of them.
When I was thirteen years old I began starving myself. I did so, in short, because I wanted so desperately to be thin. And by thin, I mainly meant white. I wished to be slimmer, smaller, slighter because that was the beauty I saw beamed at me from the TV shows I so desperately clung to in a bid to escape and from the magazines I pored over, fascinated by the lithe limbs and flawless milky skin of the models within their pages. When I saw these images I felt not just abnormal but abhorrent. An aberration. Furthermore, next to my svelte, slight, white friends I felt monstrous and vast, an expanse of disappointment next to their slim elegance. Their hair fell in straight sheens of silk and their skin shone like snow. My hair was unruly, disobedient and permanently reaching up to the sky. My skin felt dirty and dull pulled over swathes of myself that I wished would disappear. In photos I loomed over them, broader, taller, darker. They seemed to obey the contours of their bodies, but I was spilling out of mine. I desperately tried to occupy less space, to shut my mouth, to flatten my hair with painful relaxers. Dismayed with the fullness of my lips and how I thought they betrayed my ancestry, I used to bite down into my bottom lip hard enough to let blood run, convinced that this would make them smaller. I stayed sullenly in the shade, wore Factor 50 suncream and only ever let myself sunbathe under layers of towels. I did not dare catch the light lest it accentuated my Otherness in the bright unrelenting white of my suburban surroundings.
Puberty had hit me hard and all I wanted was a boy to see me through the shadow cast by my thinner, flirtier friends, despite the fact that my crushes on boys were artifice; admiration and obligation twisted together into some semblance of physical attraction. Heteronormativity in action. I thought I had no choice. Sometimes I would throw up four or five times a day. After a while it no longer grossed me out, but gave me a rush of ecstasy that I cherished. I was convinced that all of my problems would vanish as long as I was diligent, as long as I denied myself. Do I know better now? I think I will be asking myself that question for a long time. The ultimate goal of femininity is attractiveness, and attractiveness is coded as thinness. Diminishing oneself is lauded as the only way to satisfaction. Adverts for weight loss products focus on how a woman’s life can only begin to be fun after, and only after, she shifts the extra mass of herself. She must slim herself or slim her expectations. The toll that the ups and downs of my diet took were horrible. I was perpetually exhausted and had to give up karate that had been so dear to me, my mouth tasted faintly like vomit pretty much always and my heart skipped in constant palpitations. Yet still I tried. Still I persevered. Still I was convinced that after another stone had been painstakingly peeled from my frame, I would suddenly be fuckable, wanted, validated.
The concept of normative femininity positions the white female body as default and thus superior to any of the iterations of femininity that are constructed on the bodies of women of colour. White femininity is also specifically built on the denigration of black womanhood. It stands as a ‘fragile’ and ‘innocent’ opposite to the alleged aggressiveness and hyper-sexuality of black women. When, occasionally boys cared to glance my way it wasn’t to ask me to be their girlfriend, a girl worthy of their ‘protection’, but to fetishise the features my Blackness had given me and to sleazily grope and then dispose of me. As my eating disorder dragged on I rejoiced in the diminishment of my F-cup breasts, because I was sick of the sexualised responses such as catcalls and unwanted come ons they elicited.The ever watchful male gaze policed my body and made me feel as if my own physical self did not even belong to me. I heard what boys thought of me, a busty girl with ‘blow job lips’ to satisfy their jungle fever when they’d never left the confines of their quiet, conservative county. Starving away my breasts and hips provided a way to cling to a less gendered existence, safe from the endless expectations of Black womanhood. Black women in the West are seen as nothing more than shorthand for sex, hence my backlash of self-starvation as a last resort to shy away from the enforced sexualisation of my weary body.
A Black woman cannot set aside her race to talk of her womanhood, for being a Black woman is an experience that being a white woman is not. Our oppressions are interlinked and cannot be isolated. White women do not have to contend with the painful processes of straightening out kinks and curls with chemicals that burn or poisoning themselves with skin lightening creams. That is, whilst the standards of femininity are harmful to all women, they are particularly toxic to women of colour (especially dark skinned Black women) and we, as non-white women, all must bear the burden of knowing that we will always fall short of the pinnacle of Eurocentric beauty. It is this last point that is of critical importance when it comes to a more nuanced view of why I chose to start doing untold damage to my body and mind. It wasn’t just a lower weight I desired. It was access to the privileges I saw my pretty white friends and peers enjoying. People treated me as expendable, unbreakable, worthless. I was less than a woman. Because I was brash, gay and brown, I was not wholly what I ought to be. I could never be the perfect woman, it did not matter that I’d shrunk my waist to 22 inches. I wanted to be named when the boys played ‘Who’s hot/Who’s not’. I wanted to be free from the torments aimed at me regarding my hair. I didn’t want people to talk about me like I was an animal. I wanted to be seen as delicate, I wanted boys to think that they couldn’t be horrifically cruel to me. But the truth is that they were, and they did not care one bit. Because I wasn’t hot and I wasn’t sweet and retiring. I was rage and I was bitterness, fueled by the unfairness of secondary school — a microcosm of the wider kyriarchical world.
When I came out wholly and truly to myself and moved to university I was ready to try and love all that I was, down to every last pound of flesh. I swore that I wouldn’t let my demons follow me as I tried to forge a life that was actually my own, free from the confines of my mother’s house and the small-minded city I had left behind. I got involved in a queer community of body positive feminists who ostensibly didn’t revere thinness. I started to realise that feeling satisfied with my body had very little to do with my actual figure and everything to do with learning to let go of the lies I’d been fed (along with not much else) that told me that self esteem was to be found at the lowest end of the weighing scale.
When I first came to university I wore a lot of bodycon dresses, short skirts, low cut tops. I also promptly made up for lost time and spent a good portion of my time flirting, hooking up and going out, just like a lot of my peers were doing too. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that my actions seemed to be judged more harshly. That what was acceptable for white, masculine queers around me was deemed threatening and, for want of a better word ‘slutty’ when carried out by me. There was a danger in me. There was an inherent distrust of my feminine, mixed-race body and what I might be capable of. That is not to absolve me of the mistakes I most definitely made with relation to learning to navigate the overwhelming world of ‘hooking-up-whilst-queer-in-a-tiny-queer-community-where-nothing-is-private-and-everything-is-seriously-on-The Chart-levels-of-interconnectedness’, but I could tell that here in queer land, masculinity and whiteness still carried some of the privileges of the outside world. And so, despite my solemn vow to myself, my troubles with eating followed me to university and I continued to try to shrink myself into something more acceptable whilst paying lip service to the body positive mantras we as ‘enlightened’, ‘aware’ queers were meant to uphold.
The thing about white supremacist beauty ideals and patriarchy is that they don’t end at the boundary between the straight and queer universes. I began to hate my body in a whole different way. I resented my breasts and hips for marking me out as distinctly feminine and keeping me from accessing the only form of androgyny that was acceptable to the queers of my new found community (both in real life and online). Androgyny was reserved for thin, white, masculine of centre, assigned female at birth people. It was they who were held up as the most attractive, it was they who represented queerness, it was they who commanded respect, it was they who could move through this alternate world of supposed liberation in peace.
Wracked with animosity towards the swells and swoops of myself I began to question my gender identity and felt a distancing from my womanhood. I started binding my breasts after my friend very kindly bought me a binder, after I confessed to him how my chest was causing me intense distress. It was one of the most selfless things any friend had ever done for me and I waited eagerly by the post box until the day it arrived. When I pulled it on for the first time I felt a power I had never known. The vulnerability of moving through the world with such an overtly ‘feminine’ body dissolved away and I felt more myself than I had in years. For Christmas that year I asked for shirts and boxers and proceeded to teach myself how to move in a more masculine way. I stopped swaying my hips and started striding with purpose, a small thrill flitting through me every time I glanced down my bound up body and my eyes met my feet unhindered by my boobs. But I was not, as I thought I might be, genderqueer. I was suffering from deep internalised misogyny. I was rejecting the supposed markers of womanhood because I didn’t want to be associated with weakness, deception, dependency. I wanted to eviscerate the negative connotations that clung to the curves of my body. The form revealing dresses and skirts in my wardrobe lay untouched for over half a year. When I occasionally put them on in the safety of my room out of curiosity I felt as if I was in drag. I couldn’t fathom how I could have ever felt any kind of comfort dressed in such a ‘girly’ way. Through this time I was religiously going to the gym, surviving on one meal a day, and I was drunk on the way I was shaping myself.
Change came suddenly. One day I was scrolling through tumblr and as I read a small personal scribble by one of my favourite blogs about masculinity I had an epiphany. This is what I wrote to the owner of said blog that day:
“I’m just sat here having a really disconcerting moment of realisation because of what you just wrote about masculinity.
I was so sure that I disliked feminine aspects of myself because that’s ‘not really me’ and it was just how I was to fit in. But I have literally just figured out that I am drowning in internalised misogyny. I can’t believe that I didn’t realise it sooner. Those parts of me aren’t artificial, but my disgust towards them is.
I feel like I’ve forced myself into a place where I’m revelling in my masculinity and that’s kind of gross when it’s being done to the detriment of the very real feminine side of me. I’ve tricked myself into thinking I’m something I’m not. Ew I feel sick at myself.
I hate masculinities? I hate myself? I hate femininity? I AM SO CONFUSED. But thanks because I needed to realise all this and I wouldn’t have got there without you scrawling your thought processes across the internet.
I feel especially pissed at myself since I never stop banging on about feminism and women who don’t believe in it due to internalised misogyny. I never thought to turn that lens on my own ‘enlightened’ self. How fucking obnoxious of me.
The worst part is I don’t know what to do with this information. I guess I have to start learning to not trust everything I feel, which is kind of bizarre. I feel really fucking constructed right now and it’s an odd feeling.”
I unearthed my make up bag, shook out my dresses, went to the gym less and less. I started eating a slightly larger daily meal, and then stepped it up to two and then three per day. I didn’t flinch when my tummy started coming back. I cupped the small soft pouch and breathed. I slept with a fellow mixed-race, Black girl with a body that let me see the beauty in mine. When I was around her, I felt a power and proudness of myself that I was completely unaccustomed to. I wasn’t by any means cured, or beyond ever hating myself, but I had reached a place of understanding and compassion for myself and the realities of my figure.
‘To be anorexic or bulimic is to be a political prisoner,’ wrote Susie Orbach in the seminal work on eating disorders, Fat is a Feminist Issue, a prisoner of the white supremacist patriarchy, and its narrow prescriptions about proper womanhood. We cannot let heterosexist and racist ideals make us destroy ourselves from the inside out. At the height of my restricted eating practises, the Earth began and ended at the parametres of my body. I suspect that starving women in the West are praised by society for their achievements in reducing themselves, because in their dazed, exhausted state there is no threat to the existing order of things. A starving woman has no energy to raise her consciousness or raise hell at the sickness of the wider structural issues that have lulled her into the very stupor she finds herself in — and so the perpetual, vicious circle is left to fester. I am lucky, I have managed to mainly take control of the hold that bulimia has had over me for the best part of a decade. But it is not a linear progress of recovery. Sometimes I have weeks of healthiness and then some incident sends me spiralling back down into the depths. That is the nature of getting better, it is not a failure. Queer brown girls, do not eat up the lies of our world. Sink your teeth into the fullness of life. You are not too much. You are radiant, defiant. We are strong and that is why they try to tear us down.