Eating While Transgender
December 23, 2016 Jamey Alea 0 Comments
There’s an odd dichotomy that comes with being transgender. On the one hand, I often feel like a teacher. There’s an assumption that I know more about gender theory than the average person and, for better or worse, there’s often an expectation that I educate others about my own identity, what it means to be trans and the struggles of my community. On the other hand, I often feel very much like a student, still trying to figure out things about my own body that other people have known since they were young. I didn’t “come out” until I was 24 and the process of trying to understand my gender dysphoria and how my feelings about my body affect the rest of my life has been challenging and scary, but also rewarding and important.
I had a particularly enlightening experience of feeling like a student several months ago at a tech conference, where I saw an incredibly powerful talk about eating disorders by Justine Arreche. She cited a statistic that transgender people were four times more likely to develop an eating disorder than their cisgender peers. That statistic really bothered me, particularly that I wasn’t previously aware of such a big issue in my own community. I learned something else during that talk as well – that my relationship with my body put me at risk of succumbing to an eating disorder and that I needed to be more critical of my behavior if I wanted to avoid it.
I believe my struggles with my body image and my complicated relationship with food are inextricably tied to my transgender identity. Understanding that relationship has spoken to me about why the transgender community is at such high susceptibility for eating disorders. Gender dysphoria makes a person feel at odds with their body, like what they see when they look in the mirror is wrong. I’ve long felt like my body was “wrong,” but for a long time I didn’t know how to fix it. Even if I was unhappy with my weight at times, I had a sense that it wouldn’t make my body feel “right” and it was easier to put that thought aside rather than dwell on it. Why worry about something that wouldn’t fix my real problem?
On the flip side, since I’ve come out as trans and begun to physically transition to male, I am conscious of my weight in a way I never was before. Perhaps it didn’t really matter to me what weight previous “female-bodied” Jamey was, but I have a definite vision of what my masculine body should look like and a much more compulsive need to be skinnier. When my gender transition is not going at the speed I’d like and I have little control over it, food intake and weight loss feels like something I can control. Starving myself to reduce my breast size feels like a tempting alternative to the top surgery I can’t afford. I feel like my curves invalidate my identity as transmasculine and knowing that I would be less curvy if I were thinner leads to distinctly unhealthy thought processes about my weight. I’m sure this attitude is even more prevalent in transfeminine people, who are taught that thinness and beauty are important feminine traits.
Now that this is identified as a problem, what can be done about it? For me, knowledge is half the battle. Since realizing my risks, I have been extra conscious about identifying dangerous habits and squashing them before they can get out of control. However, with dysphoria, logic doesn’t always prevail. That’s why I think it’s so important to advocate for trans acceptance and body positivity. I want people to know that there are more ways to present than just traditionally masculine or feminine. For trans or non-binary people who don’t want to fully transition – it’s okay! The way your body looks doesn’t make you any less valid as a trans person. For binary trans people who do want to fully transition – your body doesn’t define you either and not being at a certain weight or a certain point in your transition doesn’t make you any less of a man or woman. I want my trans siblings to recognize the risks and get the help they need to protect themselves from eating disorders, take care of their health and hopefully, one day, love their bodies the way they have always wanted to.
If you’d like to watch “Paying Off Emotional Debt”, a talk by Justine Arreche at Code Daze 2016 in Buffalo, NY, there is a video available here.
(This article was originally published on NEDIC, the National Eating Disorder Information Centre of Canada.