As you can probably tell from reading my blog, I am pretty open about my mental health, and I suppose, by putting my life online, you could argue that I am pretty open and honest about most things I experience. Nevertheless, there is one aspect of my identity that I have kept secret for years, not just online but with friends, something which I have only spoken about to my mother and certain therapists. In the past few weeks I have been asking myself why this is, and the answer to that is fairly easy (far easier than answering the question what is 4504 divided by 789 at least…NO CALCULATORS PLEASE), that being that I fear judgment and still see this aspect of myself as somewhat taboo.
However, I have started to realise that by keeping this part of me on the “down low” because I feel embarrassed, is only perpetuating the idea that this “secret” is something I should be ashamed about, and that isn’t going to help anyone out there struggling with the same thing. What if there are people who are feeling as uncertain as I am about things but who are scared to speak out? What if they feel as alone as I do?
Ok, so it is probably time for me to stop beating around the bush and get on with the topic (the bush is fairly battered by now…there are so many leaves about I can barely see the keyboard…sorry bush, you didn’t do anything wrong…not that if you had done something wrong that would be an acceptable reason to beat you…I don’t condone violence of any kind…gosh I feel I might still be beating around the bush…SORRY AGAIN BUSH).
The topic around which my “secret” revolves? Gender, though more specifically, my personal gender identity and how that affects my mental health and experience of anorexia.
As you have probably all assumed, I was born and am biologically female, yet I do not see myself that way. In all honesty I feel quite ill when people refer to me as “a woman”, and every time a stranger refers to me as a “lady”, I feel physically sick. Saying this may make people think that therefore, inside, I see myself as male, but again this is not the case. With regards to my gender, I do not feel like a woman (just one of the many personal emotions Shania Twain and I disagree upon), nor do I feel like a man, in truth, I feel simultaneously like neither and both all at the same time. Thankfully more and more people are talking about gender these days what with the transgender FTM/MTF bathroom debates going on in the US, and there are even labels out there to describe people like me who do not see themselves as belonging in either of the binary box options presented on health forms. Names like agender/gender-non binary/genderqueer/gender neutral are now words many people, rather than just those whom they affect, are familiar with, and there are even more pronoun options and gender identities available in the “about me” section of your Facebook profile. Which of these “non binary terms” I best identify with I am still not sure as I find my gender identity rather confusing.
The one thing I know for certain however, is that I am not female, and having a biologically female body has had a bigger impact on my anorexia than most people would understand.
I have written before about how anorexia functions in my life, as a sense of achievement, sense of control, friend, identity and many other things that make it a lot more complicated than the common understanding of “people with anorexia just want to be thin”, but the other way in which anorexia functions for me is as a way of trying to minimise the “femaleness” I am uncomfortable about in my body.
I see a lot of females on recovery websites listing perks of recovery to motivate themselves and others to keep fighting their demons, and more often than not one of the things on this list will be “recover to get your boobs back” (for when a person’s eating disorder leads to weight loss/becoming underweight, “boobs” are obviously a part of the body that will undergo some shrinkage.) Indeed I have known people whose cup size has fallen several letters of the alphabet due to their eating disorder (side note: who the hell coined the name “cup size” as a way to describe the space taken up by a boob? Why don’t we just say “boob size”? Who the hell is putting their boobs in cups? Don’t people realise those things are for drinking out of not measuring body parts? You don’t call your shoe size your “colander size” do you? No! So what is this…SOMEONE EXPLAIN).
This loss of BOOB SIZE is often met with discomfort and people saying things like “I don’t feel female anymore” as if that is a bad thing, when for me, that is part of the point. For this reason, people trying to motivate me to recover by saying things like “recover for boobs” or “recover for curves” is more like a threat of “if you gain weight you are going to have to wear massive bras and stop running for the bus incase you knock yourself out with a rogue breast”, so I often find that I cannot relate to people with eating disorders despite sharing a diagnosis.
In a way the idea of my chest increasing in size shouldn’t scare me as much as it does, as, in terms of revealing another aspect of myself that people are unaware of, I actually wear a binder rather than a bra.
For those of you who don’t know, a binder is basically a very tight vest like thing that “binds” your chest somehow (magic and wizardry I think), to give you the appearance of a flat chest, and it is often a thing warn by transgender men. Indeed it was from a trans man that I myself first heard of such a garment and immediately picked one up because I too hated my chest. What I couldn’t relate to with this trans man however, was the need for things like testosterone hormone injections and a desire for facial hair, and it is there that my confusion of “what the hell gender am I then” began.
I have worn my binder for six years now at both healthy and underweight BMI’s, so I know that technically, no matter how far I am in terms of physical recovery, when I have to go out in public I do not need to worry about my chest. At either weight I know that my binder will give me the appearance of a flat chest, but I also know that I cannot wear my binder in places like the shower which is where the appearance of my chest really bothers me.
I know that in the past when in the process of getting to a healthy weight, one of the main parts of my body I have feared gaining weight on is my chest, and my bare chest makes me so uncomfortable that I have often refused ECG tests in the past to check how my eating disorder is affecting my heart (these scans are apparently very clever but involve you having to be naked from the waist up…not that clever in my opinion then).
It has caused such issues in hospital before that even nurses have been confused and contemplated forcing me to stop wearing a binder as they wonder if it could actually be an eating disorder driven choice to “make me look thinner”. People have also suggested that me wearing a binder could link to my desire to remain a child and not grow up into the scary world of adulthood, but as possible as that is, it doesn’t explain the other issues I have with regards to being called “lady”, “she” or even “daughter”. You might not have noticed but if you look through any of the posts I have written previously mentioning my mother, I always refer to myself as her “offspring” and never as “the D word”. Maybe you thought that was just because I wanted to sound fancy, but in actual fact all of those instances were me trying to write on my blog honestly whilst keeping a secret, which is sort of like trying to make a cup of tea without any tea leaves.
Other things I have seen on websites to motivate females to recover is the idea of getting their menstrual cycle back/being able to bear children, yet again this possibility is something from which I want to run away in fear rather than welcome with joy. When I lost my menstrual cycle I was secretly thrilled and as terrible as this sounds the idea that eating might make my womb work properly was terrifying. I feel so guilty saying that, as I know there are so many women out there who can’t have children so I shouldn’t be wishing my fertility away in such a manner, but I can’t help it, I don’t want a womb and I do not want a monthly reminder that I am trapped in a female body with no escape. When I was told I had osteoporosis (caused by the lack of periods), I even refused to take oestrogen hormone replacements because the idea of getting my menstrual cycle back was more frightening than the idea of breaking my spine, and my google search history has more searches like “can you get a womb or breasts removed” than I care to count.
Unfortunately, I realise that yet again it is one of those “here is a mental illness problem people struggle with” without any conclusion or advice to support those out there struggling with the same thing, which sucks because I know how horrible and complicated this whole relationship between eating disorders and gender can be. That said, considering I don’t fully understand my gender identity in relation to anorexia myself, I would be hard pushed to say anything of any worth, yet still I wanted to write this post if only to get the topic out there and the conversation started. I haven’t come to a conclusion as to “what” I am and I haven’t given advice on how to manage an eating disorder when gender identity is one of the things causing problems with recovery, but I hope I have at least shown another aspect of how complex mental health problems like eating disorders can be, and done something to dispel the idea that they are simply a case of going on a diet that gets out of hand to look as thin as the people in the magazines. More importantly though, I hope that I have made anyone else who feels as confused and alone with this as I do, feel a little less weird, knowing that someone out there does understand, and that though they are also confused, at least you are confused together. Maybe the more people who talk about it the more research will be done and the more will be understood, so as anxious as I am about posting this, I am doing it anyway to add to the voices of those telling professionals that this is a problem only to receive responses like “I have never heard of this happening before”. As I always say, when it comes to mental health problems nobody is weird or a freak, and none of you are alone in any of your struggles.
Take care everyone x