By the time I was seventeen, I would wake up and take a shower before drinking a cup of coffee and eating two dried apricot halves. Eating these were necessary to make me shit. One time in late November, I realized I hadn’t taken a shit in five days. It’s gross to say this, but there wasn’t anything to poop out. I looked into the mirror wondering for a split second if I maybe I’d gone too far. My hairline was receding. I pulled the long brown hairs from my hair brush, putting them in the trash. My hair was falling out in clumps.
Still, nobody could make me eat. I would outsmart them. I measured out the minutes in the day between each small bite I allowed myself.
I am not hungry. I can will it away. Just think about something else. I’m dizzy and floating. I’m not here anymore. Someplace else. My head feels light. I need to get a sip of water. The acid’s coming up. I need a piece of gum to make it stop. There, that’s better. I make a tiny half peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch with two teaspoons of peanut butter and two teaspoons of strawberry jam. I eat just the insides. I will ace the English in-class exam, even though I’m really dizzy and my head is pounding. Mind over matter, as my mother always says.
Just like other writers who tell the story of their eating disorders, I could feel myself disappear a little bit at a time. Like them, I would look blankly back at people when they would talk to me, not really hearing what they were saying. There are lots of ways my story is like other stories I’ve read. But there are also ways that it’s not. I am writing the story about my gender that I never had to hold onto.
Maybe the whole thing started off as something to do to be a better athlete or get approval from others. It worked: I got tons of compliments. It was hard at first, eating less and less. But then it felt pretty good. I got to say what entered me. I got high from the chemical release of my starving body. It propelled me forward through track meets and tests and a 4.0 GPA. I was an adrenaline junkie. I got my fix by denying my soft animal body’s needs. I got high off not having a body at all.
I still do.
One day when I tried to get dressed for school and nothing fit anymore, I dug around in my younger sister’s closet for a smaller pair of jeans. Perfect. Light blue Levi 501s. More like a kid. Less like a woman. The way the thighs touched, skin to skin, felt unbearable. My skin felt like there were little bugs crawling up and down the flesh of me. The kind of bugs that come in the springtime by the thousands, with big shells on their backs. The kind that congregate in hoards. I would check the mirror, cutting off parts of my body with an invisible knife that existed in my mind. I didn’t see the huge gap that hung between my bare arms and torso but when I see it in others now it feels like a flashback.
I hate you. I don’t want you anymore. I want out of here. Oh my god you are so ugly.
I said these things everyday all day long. Repeated mechanically like a loop recording. Thick arm hair like fur had developed to try to keep me warm, but I was cold all the time. I stopped bleeding.
At lunchtime I would split my subway six-inch turkey sandwich with my friend from track. We saved money and calories this way. After school I would put on my spandex shorts and go to track practice. After that I’d pretend to eat dinner and then I’d go to the gym. I’d chew trident cinnamon gum like a chain smoker to keep the acid reflux down and fake out my brain to think I was eating.
I spent most of my days organizing my every move around eating as little as possible and exercising as much as possible. I would brace myself up with my wrists and elbows on the stair climber, always on the verge of passing out.
On more than one afternoon at track practice, the coach gave his inspirational speech while we stretched: “That Marylou, she’s sure slowed down. Got fat. Don’t let yourselves be like Marylou.” Marylou was the one I beat at the season finals in the 880. When I told you about her earlier I left out this part. I’m ashamed to tell you what happened next but I’m going to anyway. What went through my mind when I sprinted by Marylou was this: “I’m taking you down cuz you’re fat and I’m not.” I had the glory. I felt like a rock star as I raced by her. The crowd cheered. I was strong and smooth and sleek. I left her in the dust. My picture was on the front cover of the local paper. I felt invincible, like I could run away from anything. Pretty soon I would injure myself. My body didn’t have enough nutrients to repair the damage. A girl named Beth with green eyes on my track team who was a born again Christian even tried to preach me into eating. “You are going to die, Arianne, if you keep this up” she said. “I’m really worried about you.” “Thanks, but I’m fine” I said. “I’ll be praying for you,” she answered. I would go to the track meets and watch everyone else run, limping from the sidelines while Beth took my place on the mile relay. All that and even her prayers to god still didn’t make me want to eat.
I never made myself throw up. I’m not one of those, I told myself. I was better than that. I had more control.
I’m not trying to write a how to manual. I just want to tell you about how I didn’t want to have a body anymore. I learned how to numb out the hunger and I learned to look away from what I could and couldn’t see under Diana Smith’s pink lacey underwear in the locker room. I learned how to numb out everything my body was trying to tell me. I was good at it.
I still am.
One afternoon when I asked my boyfriend if he thought I was gaining weight he said, “You’ll never let yourself get fat—you’ve got too much control.” We were in his bedroom after having sex. I was looking down at my thighs, talking about how huge they seemed and looking at the way my stomach was sticking out. He wore purple tights to cross-country practice and wrapped his limbs around other boys at wrestling meets. He liked me to suck him off beforehand. He said it was a good way for him to lose the extra water weight. We would often ditch fifth period at school to do this.
I have a vivid memory of something that would happen when my mother would be getting ready for work. I’m sitting on the toilet looking at her looking at herself in the mirror. It’s huge and fills an entire wall in the bathroom. The bathroom smells like moldy old towels that need to be washed. It always smells like that in there. I’m 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 years old. “I’m so fat” she says as looks at herself. I watch her grab her flesh. Handle it without care.
Somewhere inside of me I thought that maybe, if I got skinny enough, I would be able to love myself. But really I just hated myself even more. At one-hundred and three pounds the doctor looked me in the eye and told me I’d have to start eating because my body was eating its own organs. Even, and especially then, I very much hated myself. But for some reason, when the doctor said this I decided then and there that I wanted to live. Maybe it was the apathetic way he looked at me like he didn’t give a shit whether I lived or died. I stared at his stethoscope and his white coat and thought, “Fuck you. I will eat. I will live.”
My sister had made my mother take me to the doctor. My mother had said I didn’t have an eating disorder, that everything was fine. My sister insisted, so my mother took me just to shut her up. After the doctor’s visit we went out to lunch. I ordered a burrito. My mother said, “Wow, you can eat that whole burrito now. You can eat anything you want!!! If I could do that, I would eat a gallon of ice-cream.” We went to the Albertson’s in Redlands, and she said to put anything I wanted into the shopping cart. I picked out a package of Klondike bars. I ate one everyday for the next week. Vanilla dipped in chocolate. The sugar I hadn’t allowed myself tasted like a drug but my stomach hurt every time I put food into it. I wondered if the doctor was right. Maybe my body was shutting down on itself.
I was never hospitalized and maybe not even diagnosed with an eating disorder, so for a long time I didn’t think of myself as having one. That was other people. People who had to be fed chicken broth to be nursed back to health. People who passed out and had to be put on IVs. People who died from it.
But then when I was twenty-five, I met a woman who talked to me about her eating disorder. Her name was Spring. She was the first person I ever told my story to. Something shifted in me. I was not alone anymore. When I taught personal narratives in my English classes I started telling my students my story about how I had an eating disorder in high school. After I told them my story their personal narratives got a whole lot better. More real. That was when I began to see the power in public narratives.
* * *
I was a good liar. Like my friend’s mom who hid her bottle of vodka in the back of the toilet, I hid my desire for not having a body under the tongue of my lies. I liked the feeling of not having a body so much I’d lie to peoples’ faces, with no remorse, so they wouldn’t try to take away my power. It was the thing that gave me control over my body. The thing my grandfather took from me. I knew how to avoid scrutiny: “I had a huge late lunch.” “I’m actually really full.” “I’m really not hungry right now.” I still say these things. Sometimes it’s true when I say these things, so if you know me and are reading this, just know that you can never really be sure. I could be writing this just so you can’t take that away from me later. Other times I lie to myself. I used to tell my students I had an eating disorder in high school–emphasis on had. I wanted to give them hope. Nothing worse than a fucked up mentor. Now I tell them the truth. They tell me that gives them hope. Nothing worse than a fake mentor with fake promises who pretends like everything’s fine when it’s not, they say.
It’s really hard to write these sentences but I have to be real with you. I know some of you will think hey, that bitch can talk all they want about oppressive disordered eating, but I mean look at them, they’re skinny. Some days I’m a junkie, addicted to the power and control my body feels to swallow less. I’m a professor in Women’s and Gender Studies. I’m a feminist. I should be not wrapped up in this, and even if I am, I probably should not be admitting it. I should probably delete this chapter before I publish it.
The truth is sometimes it’s still really hard to swallow—food feels like it might get stuck there. In the middle of my throat. It reminds me of his dick, the way it would feel stuck there and how it made it so hard to breath.
Everyday I decide to live when I decide to eat. It’s not that easy to just do, but I am getting stronger. I will not waste away, I tell myself.
But the skinnier I am, the more genderqueer I feel. I feel more seen as a genderqueer person. Because that’s the image of a female-assigned genderqueer person the queer community has for itself, or at least the internalized image I have of myself as a white genderqueer person. The less curvy I feel, the less like a woman I feel; the less like a woman I look, the more genderqueer I’m seen as. The skinnier I am, the more like the L-Word’s Shane, the glorified white genderqueer TV image, I feel. I like the way my tie looks when my hips and chest evaporate. Skipping meals. Eating wine and dark chocolate for dinner and waking up in the middle of the night in a panic, hungry but not letting myself feel anything remotely close to hunger.
The thing is: I’m seen and read as feminine and feel like I’m a fraud when it comes to identifying as genderqueer. But I experience many genders in any given day. Especially when it comes to sexual intimacy. I feel most present in my body during sex when I feel fully in my wanna-be-skater, surferboi-shifting, definitely-not-a-woman body. The idea of genderqueer as the skinny white genderqueers on TV has been killing me but it is also something that compels me. “You may be feminine, but you can be read as genderqueer as a white skinny person,” my friend Mel once told me, “whereas I never will be. Not with my blackness. Not with my body.” I am seen by it. And I do it to be seen. I do it to see myself. I also do it because sometimes I just can’t get food down and I created this coping mechanism a long time ago to have a say in what happens to my body. I do it because it makes me high and I feel like I don’t have a body anymore. Like I can do anything. Limitless. I lie to myself to hang onto it. Throw away perfectly good food at a party while nobody is looking. Flush it down the toilet. Leave it abandoned on a plate when they turn their heads. Give it away a bite at a time. “Wanna taste this, it’s really good!” Not eat all day in preparation for a social event that requires eating.
But I do really do not want my gender expression to be rooted in starvation. I don’t want to think that I have to be sick in order to think of myself as genderqueer. I don’t want us to define genderqueer as sick and white, either. I don’t want to feel like I’m dying inside to feel genderqueer. To feel like I’m not a big fake. I wonder how we as genderqueer people can be not long gone from each other and instead make genderqueer accessible to those who aren’t some idea many of us have of looking genderfuck.
A quick note on being sick that those of us sick people know: it’s not something you can just will yourself not to be. Sometimes trying to do that, instead of accepting the body as traumatized and sick, makes it even worse. A student in my class last year said one solution for disordered eating is to tell people to “ just eat a hamburger or a bagel.” She said it with a harsh tone, as if it’s that easy. But if I am re-traumatized or triggered I can’t just will away the eating disorder by deciding to have a hamburger. There’s this feeling in my throat where it’s closed up and hard to swallow. There’s often this knot in my stomach like if I eat I will throw up or be dizzy with nausea. However, being gentle and compassionate with myself, finding ways to help my body experience times of safety and respite—these things help me be able to eat again. And when I feel less sick in relation to eating, I am able to sleep better. Waking up in the middle of the night feeling like you’re starving makes the anxiety worse because the body feels like it’s in fight or flight mode. And then it makes it hard to eat. And the cycle continues. But when you repress your desire for food so much you don’t know what the panic is about and your stomach is in knots, you can’t just get up and eat a piece of pizza, just like that.
What helps me is try to remember that I want to nurture my body instead of aiming for deprivation. The curves I love on the bodies of lovers of all genders are the curves my body has when I’m not so sick. It’s the curves I look at with such distain on myself that I actually find sexy in other people. The thick flesh of them.
I have done a million and one exercises to try to hate myself less and love myself more over the last two decades. When the self-acceptance is there, I try to memorize it, even if it’s just a fleeting moment. It gives me something to go back to. It makes it more familiar.
Today I had one of those moments. When I looked in the mirror and saw a chunk of myself that I wanted to cut off with a knife, on my lower back toward my hips, I touched it with my palm like I would a lover. I looked in the mirror in my living room and touched the flesh of my lower back. Today, when I did that, I started to feel like being well—instead of sick—could be sexy, even on me. It didn’t feel like I was saying it just in theory, like some worn out lecture I give on how we need to redefine sexy. I mean that today when I did it, in that moment, it felt for real. I’m writing this down so I can remind myself tomorrow when I forget. Because I will.
Fuck. I wish I could tell you a story of “getting over it,” but this is not that story.
I haven’t “gotten over it,” but I have found healing within it. Healing has come in the moments of gentleness, even if brief, with which I hold myself. It has come in the moments when, instead of spinning out on hating the aging sagging parts that are becoming a new way of learning to hate myself or scanning for everything that is wrong the healing is in the moments, I see the shine of me. It has come in telling my story, the whole honest brutal truth of a girl raped by her grandfather who stopped eating because her little body shook so much it hurt to put food inside of her. Everyone thought she looked better skinny anyway until her hair started to fall out and she couldn’t sleep and she couldn’t run anymore. She got compliments until some of them thought she took it too far. Then they called her crazy. That girl is still inside of me. She will always be in there.
But so are they, the genders I am. They are in there too, the genders that hold my body, that make me feel like Ari. I am them and they are me. Sometimes I allow, even for a moment, this body’s genderfuck to include the curve of my hip and floppy hair and big smile under my sideways yay hat. My blue sunglasses, the flatness of my chest in a really tight sports bra, and the skinny sick me during the times that it’s hard to eat. The me that is in bed from my shut-down immune system and the shape of my chest-heart when it’s full and bouncing to music that blasts on my speakers. Sometimes I allow, even for a moment, to see the eleven butterfly tattoos flying toward my heart where I am they. Sometimes I’m dancing in my living room in a tight tank top and then, with a spin, I am boy again with floppy hair and cleavage. It is then that the they of me makes me feel a little more free. In these moments I’m not numbed out and dissociated from my body. I’m here in all my genders. I’m not long gone from myself. I try to remember these moments. Write them down for safe keeping. Make it feel as slow as possible so it will last longer. Because for me. For me these moments. They are absolutely everything.
Ari Burford is a genderqueer genderfuck poet who writes non-fiction and loves dancing under the stars by the ocean with their mustache made of glitter. They are currently looking for a publisher for their memoir entitled I Knew They were In There, which tells their story as a genderqueer person recovering repressed memories of being raped by their grandfather. The narrative arch involves accountability/denial processes confronting family about incest alongside other violence from their ancestors’ history including settler colonialism. They teach in Women’s and Gender Studies at Northern Arizona University and have a PhD in literature. They have published academic essays that appear in Genders and The Journal of Lesbian Studies. Their essay “The Day when I was Seven and I Kept her Safe” appears in Entropy.