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.
Shit. This was so fucking powerful and relatable in so many ways. Your words are strong and they strike right at the gut, but they’re soothing and reassuring also. Thank you. I needed this right now.
im not even sure how autostraddle has become this prophetic, but thank you. im not even sure i have anything else to say, but i needed this essay this week. thank you for articulating everything in my heart.
Well this was just really, really excellent. Thank you!
This is beautifully written and just so…real, for lack of a better word. Maybe authentic? It certainly touched something authentic in me. I accepted my big, frizzy Jewish curls and my gayness at the same time, which I believe is no coincidence. After years of hurting myself literally and metaphorically in an effort to straighten them both, I gave up, let go, and started to heal. Sort of. I still wanted to look like/lusted after women who resembled Shane from The L-Word: all sharp angles and straight-line (there’s that word again) androgyny, and ended up dating women with eating disorders. I still took pride in being the only girl in the room, the one who could drink and drug (in other words, be as self-destructive) as any guy. To this day, I struggle with my height (5′ 10″) and how much space I take up; I challenged myself not to shave my legs for the summer, and though I did it, it was far harder than I’d hoped. Like you said, the progress of recovery isn’t linear. Lately I’ve started growing my hair out and wearing dresses and make-up, none of which I’d done since my early teens, before I came out. It’s fun, like being a little kid playing dress-up, but part of me still wonders if it’s a betrayal. Reading this made me feel less alone in all my complications, and that means a lot. Really, that’s everything.
This was so touching, so beautifully written. So much of this spoke to me, in so many ways. Thank you.
thank you so much for writing this, for telling your story, and for connecting the dots between idealized beauty standards, race, and disordered eating in the QTPOC community. THANK YOU.
Carmen I’m such a fan of you (and Eli) so it makes me super pleased to know that you liked my words! x
This is really, really great, thanks so much.
just made an account to say… wowwww. I read every word. You are very inspiring not only in your personal strength to overcome the obstacles, but also in your reasoned critiques of the queer community. Thank you.
Brilliant article, thanks, very inspiring
wicked good piece. i think i have been suffering from deep internalised misogyny my whole life. i don’t know how to get rid of it. i feel ashamed for having spent my childhood being disgusted by anything suggesting and now i feel bad for conditioning myself into wanting to present as masculine
The quote you posted about internalized misogyny really made me think. I, too, have identified as genderqueer because I only saw the narrow definition of “perfect” femininity and rejected it. Given that it took me 15 years to come out to myself because I had internalized SO MUCH HOMOPHOBIA (despite always having been queer-positive), it’s entirely probable that internalized misogyny plays a big part in my gender identity.
This was a beautifully written piece. Seriously, just… wow.
Yes. Thank you.
Thank you for this, for sharing your truth, for the articulation of experiences that so many of us can relate to, and for putting it all into such beautiful and powerful words.
It’s interesting (and likely a sad reflection of our queer culture) that “genderqueer” to you seemed to be “AFAB presenting male”, as though there was no way to be genderqueer and not be androgynous-leaning-masculine.
I can totally relate to the “finding new ways to hate my body” in queer circles. Growing up in Straighty McStraight world I quickly rejected all things feminine because I resented having to conform and thought this was the Best Way To Be Feminist. It took me a while to really accept and work with my femme sides, and this was at the same time that I was figuring out my sexuality.
Yet it seems I feel more pressure from the queer side than the straight side when it comes to attractiveness. I kinda figure I’m a lost cause with straight culture anyway, so whatever, but with queer culture: no matter the ALH, or the suit & tie, or the femme rockabilly, whatever – whether or not I wear one of the Queer Uniforms, I will still not code as queer, I will still not be counted as queer-attractive.
Funny thing is, straight people often misgender me as male, yet while “genderqueer” best describes my personal experience to gender I know that nobody takes me seriously on that in queer meccas like the Bay Area let alone outside – again, because Queer Uniform.
I’d be interested in hearing your take on this article by Lia Incognita (a QWOC based in Australia) on deracialisation surgery for Asians and how it’s inaccurate to claim that they want to look more White:
Also can I just say that listening to this via a text-to-speech reader is quite the experience.
That article was brilliant. It was great to see something written in a mainstream newspaper talking so directly about race and also using the words ‘trans positive, fat positive feminism’. Wish I hadn’t read the comments though…
“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.”
You are amazing. I have to congratulate you on writing such a strong, cohesive, poetic, beautifully-composed article. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you so much for sharing your story.
This is heartbreaking.
I’m so glad you persevered. Thank you for sharing your story.
I’d like to echo the previous comments on here-this was such a wonderful essay and I thank you for sharing a glimpse of your personal journey with all of us.
I am eager to share this ever-relevant, meaningful, and important beautifully written piece with my friends and family.
This is everything.
Totally crying at work right now. Don’t care.
I feel so touched that I made you cry! I hope it wasn’t too awkward at work! x
Nawww, I work in the arts so it’s not too formal. Can’t wait to read more of your work!
This is amazing. I was so happy to see this on here and I also really needed to read this right now. You are really brilliant and insightful. Thank you!
Thank you for your writing. May I add that I feel it is especially screwed up that this affects your health so directly. Food is the fundament of our physical existence – it should be this beautiful process that allows to experience the world. To be removed from this is like a complete negation of being – instead of nurture, this most basic act of feeding oneself becomes civil war.
I wish that anyone who is struggling with this may be able to reclaim their bodies and the ability to celebrate and enjoy how utterly amazing and beautiful they are.
This was really amazing. Thank you for sharing this with us. Not that my experience is really in any way similar to yours, but I rejected a lot of traditional femininity, especially after coming out, and I definitely think part of it was internalized misogyny. Sometimes it feels like being feminine is to be weak and silly, even though I do my best not to judge other people or myself for being feminine. It’s been a struggle and a journey, but I’m starting to allow myself to embrace that part of who I am, and not feel weak because of it.
Thank you so much for writing this! I relate so much as someone who had disordered eating patterns in the past and who swings between wanting top surgery and not wanting it. I got boobs young, was sexualized because of it starting when I was 12, and subsequently have had to learn to love my boobs despite hating how men have reacted to me because of them. Reading that there are other brown queer women who have struggled with body image stuff in similar ways to me was amazing.
Thank you for this beautiful piece, and for pointing out that my desire to look more masculine may have way more to do with internalized misogyny than I ever realized. I’m glad you’re beginning to appreciate your appearance without feeling the need to constantly negatively criticize it. It sucks that we’re living in a world where you ever felt the need to reduce yourself.
This is brilliant. Thank you. xxx
This is going straight into my “Important/Beautiful Articles” folder. Thank you so much for putting this into the world.
You made so much beautiful sense here. It is amazing, the things that we internalize from living in such a racist, homophobic, misogynist society. These days, my eating disorder is so much a part of me that I doubt I will ever totally let it go. It’s been 20 years, after all. I simply learned to control it so that I don’t starve to death and/or do any real permanent damage. This is so, so powerful- thank you.
Thank you for the courage it takes to put yourself out there and tell your story. It was inspiring.
This is so, so good. I will be saving this one to come back to. Really super important. I’m so glad you wrote this, race & queerness needs to be talked about more in relation to eating disorders.
It also makes me think about my own ED history and how that relates to maybe-genderqueerness & swinging back and forth between not knowing what gender I am/what presentation I want/why I’m doing any of these things. THANK YOU this post is so good & important.
I read this because on the Facebook site, the entry started: “I did so, in short, because I wanted so desperately to be thin. And by thin, I mainly meant white.” and that made my soul sit up and go ‘fuck I get that’, you know? This is powerful. it’s important. Thank you, I’m etching the ending into my bones so I don’t forget.
Thank you. I’m currently in a phase of rejecting my femininity, partly as how I feel internally but partly as a rejection of mainstream heteronormativity. And I’m becoming aware that although I have certain feminine aversions that arise internally, I wonder if some of them might be internalized misogyny about how I should look as a masculine-leaning person.
I’m gonna be more critical of my choices from now on so that I always stand up for every afab person’s right to express themselves however the f*** they want.
I can’t thank you enough for writing this! The article is well written, thought provoking and relevant to my life on many different levels.
So much of this deeply parallels my experiences of transgender womanhood. Not to say that it’s “my experience”, it isn’t mine to take, but I have felt these feelings. The self-censure. The disgust at myself for my fundamental inability to look like all the other women, thin and unquestionable-of-gender. And I hurt myself in very different ways. But the feeling is the same. The enemy was the same.
Thank you for sharing this. It’s really important to see these stories.
so relevant and so needed.
thank you, thank you.
This was incredible. Harsh and beautiful. The fact that you’re writing this from the other side of recovery, with strength and acceptance and anger is really, really awesome.
I had an eating disorder, and I relate to so much of this. But there was always the tantalizing prospect for me as a white woman: “People will think you’re cute and protect you if you can JUST quit eating.” I really appreciate being able to read about what it was like for you, dealing with all the ways anti-blackness manifested itself in school kids and university queers. It makes me think that my own quest to look like a Teen Vogue model was hurting not just myself but people around me.
“Your silence will not protect you” and neither will our thinness. People who had eating disorders and go on to become political radicals are some of my favorite people and writers. Your writing is really powerful because of all these abstract concepts that you experienced viscerally, in your body, and bring to life with your words. Thank you for writing this.
I am so blown away by all the positive comments. Thanks queers <3
Oh my goodness, it took me far too long to read this. Thank you so much for writing this article, and for (as Carmen said) connecting the dots. I’m struggling for words to articulate how what you’ve said about gender resonates… you are wonderful. Please keep writing!
HOORAY! I hope this piece races around the world shining truth and power into every cell; each dear human bound by body-loathing, self-hatred and the internalized standards of the kyriarchy.
As one of the previous comments pointed out, when we participate in disordered eating, we harm ourselves and those around us.
Thank you for demonstrating what *true* recovery can be.
This was f@&:ing powerful. Just thank you!
Wow, thank you for this. So many layers. Amazing.
<3 Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this.
In some regions the second day was the day wives
went property to pay a visit to their natal families, taking kids to see
their maternal grandparents.
I felt the searing pain (and also the deep love) with which you wrote this and also unearthed some similar pain (and love) of my own, which I think is the definition of good writing. Thank you for this.