By Debbie Seacrest, Ph.D.
I grew up never quite fitting into this binary world. When we separated into boys and girls, I knew where I was supposed to belong, but it didn’t ever feel right. When my sister told me she thought I might be non-binary — things clicked for me: I was gray in a black-and-white world.
It seems ironic, then, that the eating disorder (ED) I’ve struggled with for most of my life involves such binary thinking. Foods are either good or they’re bad. If I’m not thin, I’m too big. Anorexia thrives on those binary statements. But what I’ve learned is that life is not a binary with a harsh line dividing good from bad. Life is all about balance.
As a trans person with an eating disorder, I know that I’m far from alone. In one study, nearly 10% of gender-nonconforming individuals who were assigned female at birth had been diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia. The number who self-reported anorexia and bulimia was even higher.
Trans people and those with eating disorders often (but not always) have dissatisfaction with their bodies, and the intersection of these two identities can be difficult to navigate.
For me, being a non-binary person with a restrictive eating disorder has made recovery harder. Bodies store fat differently based on hormones, so being smaller, to me, meant being more androgynous (gender ambiguous). My gender and my body image are tightly interwoven, and I needed to find professional help that understood that connection.
My first memories of having poor body image are from when I was three, and I started restricting when I was eleven. While I saw many therapists around that time, my first few visits with an eating disorder specialist weren’t until I was in my early twenties.
Unfortunately, I felt like the therapist was assuming her other clients and I were all going through the same things. She seemed to want to put me into a box I didn’t fit into. She looked at me and labeled me as an anorexic woman instead of a complex person who practices karate, loves math puzzles, and happens to have a very insidious eating disorder.
I stayed away from an ED specialist for years because of that one bad experience. I’m now extremely happy with my current specialists and wishing I’d gotten help sooner. It was well worth finding a specialist who embraced all aspects of my identity.
Getting my pronouns right may not seem important, but it can be very jarring to hear the wrong words used to describe me. Conversely, I find it so validating when someone uses the correct words or asks questions if they aren’t sure. I’ve also been able to explore my identities, and their intersection, with my current support team, who has actively learned about trans issues with me.
The act of recovering, much like the act of finding my gender identity, has been an ongoing journey. Support from friends, family and professionals has been instrumental for me. Different people can support me in different ways, and I’m learning to seek out what I need.
If I need to hear something from someone who’s struggled with similar issues, I reach out to my online group for trans people with eating disorders. If I need a more personal touch, I seek out someone who knows me more intimately, and who can help me reframe an experience. If I need room to process a thought, I lean on my professional support team. I listen to my needs and reach out for help.
I’m also learning that I don’t have to look a certain way to be non-binary. I am who I am, and I don’t need to force my body into a shape that’s uncomfortable or unhealthy. While this certainly doesn’t eliminate my desire to be small, it helps me try to appreciate the body I have.
As I learn to recover from the black-and-white thinking I’ve struggled with for so long, I have chosen to bring the gray into the world, and into my world. I invite you to consider areas of your life where you might do the same.
Black and white can form beautiful images, but adding in grays allows so much more to be expressed.
Dr. Debbie Seacrest (they/them) is a non-binary math professor who enjoys learning more about themself and others through deep conversations and sharing experiences. Lately, they and their husband have been enjoying watching their two small children outpace them on their bikes. You can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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