Eating Disorders When You’re Transgender

The transgender pride flag

I didn’t realise I was a boy until age fourteen, which isn’t what media usually shows as normal. I didn’t realise my eating disorder came about as a result of me being trans.

When you think about an eating disorder, what comes to mind? If it’s a skinny white girl with her ribs poking out, congratulations: you’re just like most people. You probably don’t think of an overweight trans guy in a red hoodie with numbers scrawled on his hand to count calories.

What do you think of when someone mentions purging? If it’s another skinny white girl leaning over a toilet, congratulations: you’re just like everyone else. You probably don’t think of that same trans guy in the same red hoodie, awake until five in the morning, pacing up and down the street to burn calories.

What do you think of when someone mentions self harm? If you think of an emo attention-seeker with a black fringe and scars up and down her wrists, not only are you just like most people, but you’re also stereotyping us! Thanks for adding to the stigma! (We are really goddamn tired)

You probably wouldn’t think of that same red-haired, red-hoodie-wearing trans guy with scars on his thighs.

You’re not just taking a fun little survey, by the way; I actually do have a point here: Not everyone with a mental illness is a skinny white girl. Not everyone with an eating disorder has their ribs showing. Some people with eating disorders and depression and anxiety are teenagers in flannels or hoodies and jeans. Some of us are four-foot-eleven and weigh 122 pounds post-recovery (mostly).

And some of us are transgender.

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, by the age of twelve, queer kids are more likely to be binging and purging. Gay men are seven times more likely than straight men to binge and twelve times more likely to purge. One reason for this, the NEDA speculates, is because of the “broader cultural context of oppression” and a “myriad of unique stressors” that affect queer people and are possible reasons for them to be at a higher risk of developing an eating disorder.

This is the only study I’ve been able to find that speaks to the intertwined nature of eating disorders and being queer.

It’s infuriating how little trans people with eating disorders are represented. We matter too. Your picture-perfect stereotypical anorexic white girl probably wants to be skinny. For a trans person with an eating disorder, it’s not just that.

Transgender people who experience dysphoria already have incredibly similar thought patterns to cisgender people with eating disorders. We have the ‘I hate my body’ thoughts and the low self esteem. A lot of us wear baggy clothes to hide our bodies. We desperately want to change them.

And some of us have eating disorders.

For some people, food is used as a way to control how they feel. If they purge themselves of the food they just ate, it feels as though they’re purging their gender identity. If they restrict their food, they restrict their gender.

For me, it was wanting smaller breasts. I wanted smaller hips, smaller thighs, smaller… everything. I wanted to have a male — or at least androgynous — appearance. I wanted to pass.

When I was in fifth grade, I told my mom I wanted to learn to play guitar. She told me to choose something that involved exercise. I read up on weight loss then. I read that 3500 calories was a pound of weight. I read that there were 160 calories in a hot dog and 80 in Ritz crackers and 100 in a slice of bread. I put it out of my mind for two years, until something really big and really bad happened.

That was what triggered the spiral.

I started by guessing at my caloric intake (about 1700 calories, although in hindsight it was more like 2100) I subtracted five hundred per day and started writing down what I was eating. The first month, I was consistently eating around 1300 calories — 100 over my goal. By the fifth, I was eating only 500 per day. At my worst I burnt 850 calories walking around for hours and hours. It wasn’t just calorie restriction that I was getting into. It was also a bingeing-and-purging cycle. Eat an entire bag of goldfish crackers and pace outside for four hours. Eat seven servings of chips and do jumping jacks in a freezing cold shower. Eat two Hershey kisses and do 50 situps. I managed to mostly recover in August, but got bad again in January 2017: my lunches were chocolate milk (that’s the end of the list) and every morning for breakfast I had a Fiber-one bar (that’s the end of the list). I ping-ponged all around the metaphorical eating-disorder-ping-pong-table for a couple months, got better again, got bad again. Eventually it went from an eating disorder to disordered eating: it had less to do with my body and more to do with the food itself.

My eating disorder was (and is) one of the hardest things for me to talk about to anyone. Partially because, before I knew I was trans, it was really hard to explain that I wanted all my female characteristics gone. My internalised transphobia wouldn’t let me put it that way. But I was happy when my eating disorder made my breasts just a tiny bit smaller. I was happy when my caloric intake plummeted and I missed my period.

It wasn’t about wanting to be a pretty girl. It was about wanting to be a pretty boy. I can see that now. I couldn’t, then, and knowing that would have saved me so much pain.

Though there have been no widespread surveys on the subject, it’s clear from the people I’ve asked and their stories that this is a common problem that needs attention and to be understood better by the neurotypical, cisgender public.

If transgender people were more represented and accepted in culture and in the media, there’s a chance that I never would have fallen into this spiral. I would have had words and the terminology to explain why my body felt wrong, and even if I had come out and been rejected, I still would have known why I felt this way. If eating disorders were less stigmatised, I wouldn’t have been scared to speak up about mine. And if the two together had been more researched and spoken about, I would have been able to find a solid answer as to why I went through these experiences so much easier.