Xpost: The Weight of an Eating Disorder

This post was written by Aretha and originally posted on Queereka.

If someone asked me one year ago if I knew something was wrong, I’d have said yes. Something has always been wrong, something has always been off, far before the words were officially said, far before the diagnosis was officially handed out to us. Retrospectively, I don’t think there was ever a time when I didn’t know her issues – there was only a time when she was aware enough to not let them spiral out of control.

I’ve known my girlfriend for three years. She’s been my best friend for a little less than that, and we’ve been dating for what, ten months now? Yes. That’s about right – and it’s also how long she’s been battling anorexia.

This is somewhat our story.

I don’t need to go on and on about what anorexia is or what it does to a person – I don’t want to do that, either. What I do want to go through in this piece is how we coped or have been coping or have not coped at all. I’ve known this disease, theoretically, since I was a kid. I was somewhat overweight, I came across a lot of bullying, I was worried for myself. I can’t even grasp, nowadays, how I managed to be so analytical about it, but I researched eating disorders and its causes and its triggers when I was about eleven just to make sure I would never let myself fall into one. I’ve known all the symptoms forever. Which is how I knew, even before it reached a point of no-return, where she was heading. But whatever mind games I played on myself to keep me protected back then, I had no way to stop her whatsoever.

I find it important to note she has always been incredibly beautiful. That is, from the very first day I had a crush on her, I knew how unbelievably out of my league she was. It’s puzzling, really, how one always seems so incapable of seeing that in themselves. And I find it just as important to mention that, when I met her, she was seemingly very comfortable with her own weight. As in dismissing my own experience of bullying as a weakness, as in saying “fat” was just a word and it only gained importance when I gave it importance.

I should also mention how borderline abusive our relationship gets.

Borderline – that’s also an important word. She’s got borderline personality disorder. She lives her emotions on the extreme end of them, she is particularly incapable of putting herself in others’ positions, she’s prone to distorting things into her own view and she’s more likely than most to be affected by addiction, depression, eating disorders.

So yes, I’ve always known something was off. She was always getting in and out of diets, gaining and losing weight, giving it and not giving it any importance – up until the day she finally could not get out of it anymore. So she stopped attending morning classes for she couldn’t get out of bed. She stopped going out with all of our friends because she couldn’t eat in front of anyone anymore. She stopped wearing clothes she loved because they showed her arms and her legs and it seemed like everyone in the world was looking at her and screaming in disgust.

And I… Until about this week, I thought I was the only friend she didn’t drive away. The only person she held on to in these times of despair, the only one capable of handling it. But truth is, she pushed me away as much as she pushed everyone. I’m just the stubborn one that loves her way to much to let her do it. So I stayed, and I watched, and I managed to help – enough to make her start a treatment, enough to make her family aware of it, enough to make her understand a lot she refused to.

Huh, I’m talking a lot more about her than I originally intended to. What’s been really bugging me, what’s been really making me want to write about this whole mess is this generic feeling that, while she’s let it consume her in way more destructive ways than I ever did, this has got to me like nothing else before. And not simply because I worry – I do, a lot – but because, though I knew it all in theory, the harshness of the mere existence of eating disorders has moved things inside of me I wish had never been moved.

The first thing to stun me is how common eating disorders are. After all this blew out, I realized I know at least four or five girls that have been through one of them (I’m not even sure I haven’t!). And it’s paramount to note that it’s never really about how much you weigh. It’s about how beauty standards are forced onto you from the very moment you are brought into living in society. Standards as naturalized as patriarchy itself, born much as a result of it; standards impossible to live up to, no matter how top model-ish you are. In some circles and communities more than others, sure, but we’re all constantly under this heavy cloud of societal scrutiny that will always allow for people to judge how you differ from the ideal and will always encourage you to judge yourself. And you can get all the love and acceptance in the world – I know that’s what my family gave me – and still, you’re there and you (think you) are overweight and you’re ashamed of it, even if you know better.

And then I’ve had some other not-so-politically-noble thoughts. I’ve grown from a place where I was completely comfortable with my body to somewhere I actually kind of hate it. It’s so freaking hypocritical – one minute I’m telling my girlfriend, as gently as I can manage, how beautiful she is and how she should stop doing this, how she so absolutely does not need this… And then I skip a meal and find myself thinking “well, if she can do it, why can’t I?” – and the scary thing is, I’m not quite sure what I’m referring to when this thought pops up. Do I think it’s okay that she doesn’t eat anymore because she’s lost weight and she’s looking good? Do I think this is a good way to lose weight? Do I think I can do it as long as I don’t… lose control? Do I think I’m strong enough? Do I think I’m safe?

It should not be natural for 10-year-old boys and girls to worry about their weight, it should not be natural for them to make other kids’ weight weapons against them. It should not be normal that I can’t think of one female friend and all but one male friend who do not worry about their bodies. It shouldn’t be naïve to expect to not ever go through this, to expect those closest to me to never go through this. Yet it is.

I have no idea what to make of all this. I have no idea what is going on anymore.

What I do know is that it shouldn’t. It shouldn’t.

Aretha is a lesbian girl born in Amazon-covered northern Brazil, and currently lives closer to the Atlantic Ocean. She is working on becoming a biologist and her interests include feminism, LGBTQ rights, particularly small soil fungi and anything Anne Hathaway does.


Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at facebook.com/anthrowill.

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  1. Aretha, “So I stayed, and I watched, and I managed to help – enough to make her start a treatment, enough to make her family aware of it, enough to make her understand a lot she refused to.”
    That’s a LOT. I know what this is like, I have been in the same boat as you, where somebody I loved intensely was suffering from this horrible, deadly condition. I’ve been there, in the anorexia ward of a specialist unit of a major hospital, and seen all the young women and girls come through after eating, pale and purple and traumatised – waiting for our special lady. I was privileged and at the same time deeply upset to have been allowed to be there and experience this – and knowing something of the horrors that many of them had faced leading up to this situation -this coping mechanism.

    It is not easy to be close to an anorexic – but, ahhh! the joy to be able to help your special person along the road to recovery is the most intense pleasure that any human can experience –

  2. While I admire your strength for staying with your girlfriend, and I understand how incredibly hard it is to be close to someone with an eating disorder, I do have to say that I’m a little worried that you think an ED is about patriarchal beauty standards. As someone who suffers from an ED, and who has talked to and read about many, many people with EDs, I think it’s safe to say that it really has very little to do with beauty. It has to do with some other fear or pain or difficulty that you can’t cope with in any other way, some emotional pain that is driving you crazy. In your girlfriend’s case, it sounds like the BPD plays a big role in that.
    I think it’s important to know that while beauty standards are unhealthy, they’re not what cause eating disorders, and that if you’re looking at her and saying “if she can, why can’t I?” maybe what you’re really referring to is “if she can cope with all the pain of these disorders by not eating, why can’t I?”

    1. So do patriarchal beauty standards have no impact on anorexia and other EDs? You’re obviously far more competent in this subject than I am, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that someone who might otherwise be prone to an ED might be pushed farther in that direction because of the beauty standards. So, not a cause, but maybe an additive factor?

      1. It is an additive factor in the sense that if reducing your intake is anxiolytic, for example, then anything that makes you realize that, can “trigger” it. In that sense, dieting is a risk factor because dieting means reducing caloric intake, and that can trigger a sort-of positive feedback loop in people predisposed to anorexia nervosa. Nonetheless, it is generally overblown in society. Eating disorders have a heritability of 50-70%, meaning that genetic factors account for 50-70% of the variability we see in disordered eating behaviours.

    2. Olivia, what you say is absolutely the same as I have been told by those who know. Anorexia is a coping mechanism. Slimming per se is like 1% of it – the other 99% is the big elephant in the room that we don’t talk about.
      Sorry about the emotional prose in my opening comment, I meant to tone it down a bit but the cursor was on submit when I touched the glide pad!

    3. Yes, THIS.

      We are all exposed to the same media and “thin culture” yet anorexia nervosa rates are ~1%. Why not 50%? or 90%? Because, there is something about that 1% of individuals who find that restricting their eating reduces their anxiety, or depression, or negative mental state, or whatever. Lots of people diet to try to fit into some ideal body type, but anorexia nervosa is so much deeper than that. There’s clearly a lot of neurobiological factors that differentiate someone who literally starves themselves to death and someone who is just yo-yo dieting. Dieting is shit, and disordered eating is shit, but it is not the same thing as an eating disorder.

      There are plenty of anorexia nervosa patients who are not fat-phobic and don’t necessarily want to lose weight, it is just that eating brings on anxiety and an uneasy state of mind. There’s already too much blame put on sociocultural factors (and I’m not saying they don’t exist), but, as Dr. Cynthia Bulik said, it is the “tyranny of face validity.”

  3. The other thing I wanted to say is – treatment of AN is ultimately not a job for amateurs, but for a highly specialised pshychiatric unit accredited and skilled in treatment of eating disorders. This is not to say that family, friends and lovers don’t play a vital role as well.

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