I have been asked by readers to post AJ’s entire essay, which has been posted in consecutive sections over the last five posts, in its entirety and in order. I am doing that today.AJ, my non-binary progeny, has had what you might call “difficulties” coming to terms with being a boy trapped in a girl’s body and has written about that on this blog. (“Toy Retreat,” October 8, 2021; “Dinner With Mom and Dad,” December 20, 2021; “Clothes Make the Man-Child,” January 14, 2022; and “Non-Binary Tennis,” August 31, 2022.) Today AJ continues to guest blog about perhaps the most difficult part of that journey–his struggle with body image, food, and the lapse in mental and physical health that made it clear that some critical life decisions were necessary.
Here is AJ:
My eating disorders began as a child. I was always an emotional eater and lived out my hedonism via Hostess and Hershey’s and all that good stuff. I’d always eat as many cookies as the parents would allow and drank orange juice (aka, “healthy soda”) by the gallons as well as soda soda whenever I could get my grubby paws on it. Food was one of the places I could get a hit of tasty dopamine and lose myself at the same time. It was sublime to come home after school with a big bag from the bodega of a mix of sweet and savories. Junk food was a friend. I guess I had a killer metabolism at the time and was also, ahem obliged, to play tennis all the time so my activity battled all those snackies. Another metabolism booster was that I picked up the lovely habit of smoking cigarettes somewhere along the way as a teen. Ahhh, another oral fixation to take me away and out of myself. Sorry, I’m not advocating smoking but oh man, it was disgustingly amazing.
But then, as much of the population, I was dropped off at college…and LEFT! Among the very first things that first-year students are required to figure out—besides where the bathrooms are—is how they are going to handle their new independence when it comes to eating and drinking behaviors. I am now a strong advocate for requiring all entering students to take Nutrition and Eating for Oneself 101. (Oh, and also, Financial Literacy 101 in which one would learn all about money management.) It’s so easy and tempting to lose control with Frito-Lay and Froot Loops around. Realization that one no longer has to eat what they don’t want to eat is revolutionary, and potentially belt-loosening or gut-busting. Moreover, vending machines and 7-Elevens present new collegians with cornucopias of “food” laden with fat, salt, and sugar and processed beyond recognition. Also, beers can be chugged ad nauseum (literally).
I, however, being a nervous wreck, ended up taking the opposite route. I still had the palate of a little kid and wanted hamburgers with fries and broccoli all the time (at least the broccoli was healthy). Sauces that weren’t fire engine red like ketchup or Prego were to be feared. I wasn’t eager to experiment with food when it was presented. Alternate versions, unfamiliar offerings, or unidentifiable foods weren’t appetizing. At this New England school, for example, there was a lot of mystery fish. I had eaten fish sticks and canned tuna fish in my previous life but that was it (not even the Fillet-O-Fish sandwich at McDonalds…not that that doesn’t count as mystery fish). Here, on the other hand, was a fish called “scrod.” Surely that was a joke. What kind of stupid fish, or stupid anything, is named “scrod”? In any event, I was overwhelmed trying to remember how to get to class and where to go to the bathroom at any given moment. So, naturally enough, I stopped eating regularly scheduled meals.
I wasn’t playing tennis multiple times a week; I wasn’t walking around Brooklyn; I wasn’t doing anything to keep my muscles intact, so they atrophied. It was a slow process that I didn’t even notice because I didn’t know atrophy was a thing! I always had a pretty static body comp so why would it ever change? I also didn’t like to think or look at my body because as a transgender person, I HATED my body and never wanted to think or deal with it. So, I just went on smoking and drinking Coke, which, along with ramen noodles and potato chips, had become my main source of nutrition (I use the term loosely). You’d think I would have learned that basic nutrition needed attention…eventually I did when I got so unhealthy I literally got sick. Yup, I got mononucleosis and not the fun kissing kind; just the lacking nutrition kind, sigh.
I have graduated. I’m technically an adult. I’m working. I’m living alone, but I am trying hard to become a social being…you know, going out with friends and exploring life a bit. But my relationship with food continued to be a ticking time bomb. Restaurant food always meant larger portions, alcohol, and fried things. And at home, well, I never ate an organized plate of food, only a mishmash of whatever I had around, standing up in the kitchen, arms flailing toward a cabinet or the fridge door and back again grabbing for more and only stopping when I was beyond full and tired of eating. I might go to the trouble to cook chicken or tilapia (surprisingly healthy lean proteins)—while intermittently grazing on other items—pour ketchup on the protein, eat it and then do the process all over again because I wanted more, more, more even though I didn’t even think, know, or care if I was hungry. Veggies were scarce and fruit was nonexistent. As they tend to do, all those calories added up, especially since everything seemed to end up doused in ketchup.
Not surprisingly, due to my Henry VIII-ian ways in food consumption, I easily packed on an additional 20 pounds. This was not good. Looking at the reflection of myself in my now too-tight clothes was not a pretty sight. And I say “pretty” because the snugness of the clothes made me more identifiable as a woman with curves and soft spots. My one body blessing had been that I didn’t have a womanly woman figure; I was not curvaceous nor endowed with a big chest. My hips weren’t noticeable, and my waist was relatively straight up and down like a guy’s. But with this added weight my womanly figure started to make herself known. Let’s face it: I was a plump, chonky female…my inner-dude was weeping. I had always liked being lean and looking as physically male as possible, but all of a sudden, I was looking doughy, soft, and…feminine.
When finally even a doctor said that my cholesterol was high and that I was not all that fit, it seemed time to stop wallowing in misery, candy, and ketchup and to take control of myself. The second ginormous shock came on the day I went down into plank position to do a pushup. I went down but couldn’t come back up no matter how I struggled. I had never not been able to do a pushup, and being able to do them always signaled self-sufficiency and masculinity to me. Men were expected to be able to do pushups, even if women were not. That I had grown too heavy and/or had become too weak to accomplish a single pushup was a blow to my masculine ego. To find that I couldn’t lift my weight off the floor made me feel like a floppy, flabby seal.
This new feminine look was simply not me. I needed my boyish figure back!
In Sesame Street-ese, my letter for the year became E. E as in “Eating” and E as in “Exercising.” In my mind now Eating was to be forever deemed E as in “Evil.” And Exercising became E as in “Extreme.” All effort went into exercise in order to mold, erase, and punish my body. Given my personality, it wasn’t hard for me to overdo it. I stopped going out with friends, and instead came home every evening after work to exercise. Not being able to do that single pushup had been emotionally distressing. But now I had a physical challenge and a goal to reach. I felt purposeful and less lost. It took quite a while for me to again be able to do a full plank pushup, but the build-up process was wonderfully satisfying. I incrementally increased the goal: do 5; now do 10; ok, do 15; 20; now do 2 sets of 20.
As exercising ramped up, eating had to be curtailed. I didn’t want to feed the hedonist anymore. She had been eating too much dough and spending too much of it, too. I wanted to put a stop to my self-indulgent eating and spending habits. Such hedonistic behavior needed to be punished. Nothing good had come of it. Pretty soon my obsession with [not] eating and [not] spending money joined my obsession with working out. So I started punishing myself on an extreme dieting and budgeting bender while working out incessantly. I was putting my life in order. Yeah, right.
I’m on a mission to lose the pounds that have produced this highly unwelcome feminine body. Excessive Exercising on an Elliptical (E had become the letter of the month…so Sesame Street), but I was making sure that my daily intake of calories was far less than the ones used to exercise. The Evil Elliptical had a calorie counter that I kept at a constant display. (Watts, who cares? Distance…mildly interesting. Nah, calories expended was where it was at). I wasn’t trying to get fit; I was only trying to shed flab. Another fun obsession was that I would check the calorie labels on foods, do some math (then redo it correctly), and ensure that I didn’t eat more than I would expend in a day.
Unsurprisingly, I became obsessed with calculating calories. I was a label looker and Googler of all foods and their nutrition vs. calorie payout. I collected nutrition label information like baseball stats. I watched predominantly all food shows, which was easy thanks to the Food Network, Travel Channel, and Cooking Channel. Food blogs were also a key escape and a form of foodie voyeurism…come on now, they call it food porn for a reason! And I was a dirty dirty viewer and drooler. I could literally be watching Hungry Girl, Lisa Lillien, while being on my iPad looking at local restaurant dishes on Yelp or looking at one of the many junk food, or cooking, or rating and tasting food blogs on my iPad. Food porn for the win.
Back to reality, I had a small stock of food left in my cabinets, but I managed to finish that off quickly, so I could start with a clean slate. My fridge became pretty much barren except for milk, condiments, and carrots—bonus: it was nice and tidy and just the way I liked it.
At the beginning of this “diet” I still had my wits about me, and I was intent on taking control. I also sought serious punishment: Punishment for my past bad eating behavior; punishment for spending too much money; punishment for being in a woman’s body; punishment for my mind telling me I should be a man. I sought that serious punishment by walking hours a day and ellipticalling (sure, that’s a verb now) away as many calories as I could. Working out had the double bonus of being robotic and zombie-like while also being painful…everything I could want.
I was feeling in control-ish, so I ventured back to the grocery store to buy some non-coffee related items. I went with the directive in mind to buy the “healthiest”—and cheapest—food I could find. “Healthy” meant low-cost, low-calorie, non-processed, non-fat, low-sodium, ready-to-eat foods. What does that equal? Canned vegetables. I had an affinity for cans because of their handy, portion-controlled rations and tidy uniform containers. Admittedly, they were a splurge. Canned foods were more costly than a giant sack of dry rice and beans, but they were so user-friendly and stacked so neatly (labels facing out…labels always facing out; OCD; OCD; OCD!). Frozen veggies were probably cheaper, but they were not portion controlled, and required preparation. Yes, dear reader, defrosting is preparation. No, I wouldn’t heat them on the stove or even microwave them. Yes, I’d merely set them in the fridge the night before like thawing meat, or leave them out on my counter all day so they would defrost to room temp. No, I didn’t want them hot; I actually like room temperature foods. Canned food fit the bill in all categories.
Eating at work was an issue. I figured I couldn’t just eat stuff out of a can for lunch without looking like a super weirdo sociopath. I did have some caloric leeway for lunch because it was the middle of the day, so I’d have plenty of opportunity to burn those calories away after work. I had to eat (dang it) and I was getting progressively hungrier watching coworkers go out and buy yummy food and then smelling it all around me. At first I let my wallet dictate my path and sought out the cheapest food that I could buy for the week—like 5-pound bags of tomatoes that I could store in the fridge at work and eat with mustard throughout the week. I don’t know why I thought that looked “normal.” Somehow eating fresh produce was less embarrassing than eating canned stuff. Apples continued to be consumed for snacks. When tomatoes were unattainable, I pre-cooked kabocha squashes or sweet potatoes (both of which I could buy in bulk) and portioned those out for the week.
My plan was working! Those excess pounds started to melt away. My clothing fit differently, and I felt in control of my body and my life…slightly.
I liked the direction I was going, so I upped the ante and worked out every free moment I could. I wanted to look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club, I just didn’t know how to accomplish that in a healthy way, so I went with my own version. I was aware that a woman my size and age required a basic 1,600 calorie diet to maintain organ operation and all those basic life activities like working, typing, talking, walking, and going to the bathroom. 1,600 seemed like a pretty high number to me so I took my intake down to 1,400 and then 1,200. These numbers still seemed high to me, so I took it down to 1,000. On my 1,000 calories-per-day diet, I spent at least 500 calories walking, another 300 ellipticalling, God knows how many doing pushups.
I never didn’t eat for a day. I knew fasting was a “bad” thing and would eventually kill my metabolism, and I didn’t want to be “unhealthy.” I never considered that I was moving myself into the realm of anorexia because I was always eating something, and anorexics didn’t eat anything, right?
I soon came to the realization that the only path to truly not eating was to not buy food with the intent to not eat it (triple negative word score!). Deeper down the rabbit hole I went. Pretty soon 1,000 calories a day sounded like a lot. I mean, 1,000, that’s a big number! I was still functioning, wasn’t I? So obviously I could function on fewer calories. My figure was responding nicely. I was getting my androgynous body back, but I still had my infernal breasts and tummy pouch. Needed to cut more calories.
By now my caloric intake had decreased to maybe 800 calories at best and I was in the beginning stages of starvation mode. My body began to fight back; I was really hungry! There’s a cure for that. It’s called binge eating. I started binging on “healthy” things like jars of tomato sauce or 32 oz. tubs of Greek yogurt—non-fat, of course. Anytime I got food near me, I would snarf it down like a desperate dog or a top of the line Dyson vacuum cleaner. I tried to play coy, but I was just plain friggin’ hungry. I once demolished a block of uncooked tofu standing in the kitchen, pouring soy sauce over it so that I could pretend it was sushi. Clearly, I was turning to the dark side. Only it wasn’t yet clear to me.
My “very healthy” dieting was making me HUNGRY. I needed to be around FOOD. Going to grocery stores became a secret pastime. I ogled all the food that one could buy. I got addicted to just being in food’s presence and basking in it. There was so much…aisles and aisles to peruse and even touch. So illicit. And trust me, it did not escape me that walking around in grocery stores meant that I was actually spending calories which made this form of voyeurism doubly attractive.
There were other motives to going to grocery stores. Food at home was not safe. It was too easy to eat. But at the store, it was different. In grocery stores there were……samples! Moreover, samples were only weekend treats since stores would make the most business on those days, but that was perfect for me because it was a form of portion control right there. I quickly learned which stores had the best delicacies, so I could easily map out my weekend rounds.
Then one day I lost control and ate half a jar of Biscoff spread, many many handfuls of trail mix, cheese cubes, and finally bread with marinara sauce right in the middle of one of those stores. I walked out with my head hung in shame and my belly protruding, but I wanted more! I was afraid of being called out as a weirdo sample hoarder, but, well, I was a weirdo sample hoarder!
Even I knew that I couldn’t keep this up. Grocery stores entered the category of “feared ones.” I thought about stealing from stores. In my fantasies, I wouldn’t put things in my pocket, but rather, I would just open boxes and eat stuff in the store and walk out. I thought/hoped I’d get away with it because I didn’t look homeless or criminal-like (yes, cuz I looked like a girl…I’m so sexist). I never actually built up the courage to do it. Not that I’m having a proud moment right now. I was just too afraid of getting caught. (I was always a fraidy cat about rule-breaking.)
I decided I needed to find a more inconspicuous target. And there was the answer: Target. Shamefacedly, yet electrified, I made trips to Target around the holidays when candy was on special display because kids (I assume kids) would go and bust open packages of bulk candies and eat some. I figured if they were already open, they were fair game because they couldn’t be sold damaged. So, I’d go pilfer candy. Worse, I’d go to just drive myself more insane because I knew candy was so bad for me and such a devil’s food (mmm, devil’s food cake!). I’d go and literally stare and pace around an innocent, lone, loose snack-sized KitKat bar that had been dislodged from its KitKat kolony and engage in a battle with myself about whether it was ok to pocket this mini Kat for energy and life or would it destroy me by adding to my stomach wombum bumpum? Control and rational thought were in short supply. And conveniently, it gave me more reason to hate myself.
Some epic binges (not stolen but acquired through some legitimate means): I ate an entire jar of peanut butter; six chocolate croissants and two donuts I found on the street; an entire tray of Italian cookies; a giant Tupperware full of venison (yes, venison of all things); an entire box of Russell Stover’s chocolates (duh). These were not my finest moments. Sometimes I ate leftover food that was supposed to last for days, and sometimes I ate all of these things with some chips on the side! I couldn’t even do the math anymore on the number of calories I consumed during a binge because I went into zombie mode while eating and lost count of what I ate in the blur of movement from hand to mouth.
Even with the binging, I had lost 35 pounds in 8 months. However, it was becoming clearer that I was losing my mind, my body, and ummm, my hair. My hair—one of the few bodily aspects of myself that I was ok with.
Of course, my body cried out in other ways to tell me to end its punishment. My nails grew fragile; I was pasty white; and all of my muscles were breaking down. Though I still worked out all the time, I never gained any muscle, only lost it. My joints started cracking. I stopped being able to use the elliptical; it took too much effort. Most things took too much effort…even thinking. I was getting light-headed, and my thoughts were muddled and confused—even more so than usual. I couldn’t make decisions, but I could still muster a fake public smile, and an inward smile when I felt my hipbones jutting out.
I was becoming very, very shaky. I felt rattled physically and mentally. All that joint clicking and clacking echoed the rattle. I had no energy. After I walked to work (3.4 miles, but who’s counting?), I would plunk down in my chair and barely be able to move. Getting up literally started to hurt. My joints were coming apart. It became a production to walk to someone else’s desk or to the bathroom. When I returned home and freed myself from my work clothes, I would wobble and wave around pretending to do my exercises (think: air dancer a.k.a wacky inflatable waving guys in front of car dealerships), and for dinner eat my ration of canned veggies or black beans. Sometimes I added ketchup because I love ketchup and I needed some extra sugar, but I justified ketchup because it contains lycopene, and I felt more grown up “seasoning” my veggies. I took a look at myself and saw that my bones were protruding. I was becoming a skeleton, weeeeeee.Bulimia nervosa: An eating disorder, “mostly in women” (says Merriam Webster) in which excessive concern with weight and body shape leads to binge eating followed by compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting or the excessive use of laxatives of diuretics. According to the Mayo clinic there are two types of bulimia: purging bulimia where one regularly self-induces vomiting or misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or enemas after binging, and non-purging bulimia where one uses other methods to rid oneself of calories and prevent weight gain, such as fasting, strict dieting, or excessive exercise. So, I’m now eating almost nothing. I binge eat, skulk around in grocery stores and steal candy because I’m HUNGRY. Apparently, my body needs those binges in order to, you know, make my heart beat and keep my diaphragm moving. After a binge, I don’t eat anything for a few days. I’ve lost tons of weight, but I am HUNGRY! I no longer have the energy to exercise away those binge calories. I am angry at my body because it’s HUNGRY! It’s trying to make me eat, trying to make me more of a woman; my own body, that bitch! Exercise no longer suffices to balance the binges. I come up with a new strategy: I start to purge. ME! The one who was puke-a-phobic throughout my entire life. I must have thrown up when I was a kid (doesn’t everybody?), which must’ve felt so bad or scared me so much that I refused ever to do it again. Then as a teenager I threw up three times from drinking and stopped drinking altogether for ages because everything surrounding the upchuck process was horrifying. This is the me who now started to stick my own grubby finger down my own grubby throat. I literally ate myself sick. I would just eat and eat and eat and indulge until I hit a threshold, and then I’d eat more to push myself over the edge and be able to puke. I felt crazy and out of control while doing it, but there you have it. I wanted to eat and taste the food, but not add to my woman wombum bumpum, so I turned to bulimia. As it turned out, throwing up wasn’t all that bad, and it got easier (finally…something!). Alcohol, I learned, aided the process to an extraordinary degree because it dulled my senses, further impaired my judgment, and made me want to puke naturally if I drank too much of it…in fact, I had to puke if I drank too much. Unfortunately, it was also an appetite enhancer and stimulant. So I would eat, then purge. It was a vicious merry-go-round, but I knew not to buy a ticket too often—I didn’t want to become a bulimic for heaven’s sake. Oh, and I also abused laxatives, but only in moderation! As they say, “everything in moderation…” I was in complete denial about my bulimia. I reasoned (ha!) that because I wasn’t puking with regularity like I thought a bulimic did, I couldn’t possibly be considered bulimic. But I didn’t want to throw up or have diarrhea all the time. Neither was much fun. I was in a quandary: I did not want to binge and I did not want to eat. Thus, I employed my third and final tool: Windex. Inspired by the father from My Big Fat Greek Wedding who uses Windex as a cure-all, I used it to cure my lack of control around food. I rendered bingeable foods fresh-scented, sparkly, and inedible. My toxic condiment was used on sweets or leftovers that I deemed too calorie-laden. Without the Windex, I was doomed to endure the process of binging and purging, and that took too much energy—energy I no longer had. Spraying Windex on food was sacrilege to me because 1) I was wasting a cleaning product, and 2) I was wasting food when there were starving people in the world. Sometimes after spraying it, I dumped the food in the toilet and flushed it away. I felt guilty for that, too, but it was better than eating it, throwing it up in the toilet, and then flushing it away. Right? A new fun game emerged: Grocery stores provided me a whole world of free buffets once again, but not from samples anymore. This time it was from their inventory turnover. I hovered on the pavement outside where stores deposited their garbage. The City is rife with unwanted or expired items, and I became fixated on them as some sort of basic instinctual survival skill. I became a character in Hatchet or contestant on Alone, except I wasn’t stranded anywhere in the middle of nature, didn’t have to live off the land or defend myself against predators, and could walk into one of those grocery stores at any time to buy and eat food. In socioeconomic terms this mania was completely unwarranted and unnecessary, and I knew it. I should have recognized that I was starving myself and going slowly mad in the process. But no. Instead I dabbled in picking stuff out of the garbage. I never ate garbage…not garbage like from a dish someone else had eaten from. I never hovered over a street corner garbage can waiting for individuals to discard bits of sandwich that I could rescue and eat. I did faux foraging. There I was in my Gap jeans and Urban Outfitters shirt rummaging through tidy bags of civilized garbage put out by local bakeries or high-end grocery stores. I was a bougie bandit: I’d slink away with loaves of multigrain baguettes. Baguettes I was terrified I was going to binge on! Everything was upside down, turned around, and backwards in my world. There was a method to my madness (and it WAS madness): For example, I monitored a certain Citarella gourmet market because on certain days of the week they would put out their expired sushi. It was just a day expired, so I took the gamble and ate old tuna or salmon rolls. They never tasted too funky and I managed not to get sick. Another triumphant haul was at a Duane Reade that was turning over their inventory of expensive (and expired) cereal. It was Kashi Go Lean, so this was a double win because it was supposedly healthy. The Kashi lasted me for months as I parceled it out at work for lunch. It tasted horrible, which helped me not binge on it. I was probably poisoning myself because it tasted like chemically laminated bitter cardboard. Anyway, as I ate my way through it, lunch after lunch, I was happy and even proud of my resourcefulness, non-wastefulness, and “normalness.” I was finally not throwing away food, I was eating the food that was thrown away! Even I knew that I needed help. I didn’t want to go to therapy, but I couldn’t stand myself nor could I continue living this way. Was I trying to kill myself? Passively, probably. Disappear myself? Yes. I was definitely trying to kill that feminine beast who kept trying to invade my body. And I did kill part of her because I had finally attained amenorrhea…let the choir sing! Amenorrhea is the abnormal absence of a normal monthly menstrual cycle. I had always had very regularly scheduled and very, uh, robust periods. A while before, I had noticed my periods getting less and less heavy (curious…) though still regular. But then they kind of became ghost-periods; like the first days were like the last of my “normal” periods. Then one magical month…I got NOTHING! What?! Huh?! What’s going on? (Obviously not pregnant, hahaha!) Then another month. What?! Huh?! What’s going on? Honestly, I tried not to think about it too much for fear that even thinking about would bring it back. Like saying Voldemort’s name. But this was a magical time! Somehow, even in my non-lucid non-thinking-straight (always think gay, boys and girls! Haha.) I put two and two together…I did math! Not eating and not having enough calories to like, have thick hair and nails, also meant not having enough calories to drop eggs. Aaaaand done. I could never lay another egg again but I could also, *sob*, not maintain this. Period. I knew I needed to get my shit together if I were to survive. To do this, I knew I had to eat again like a normal human being. But by doing that was I going to have to let the beast win? Talk about being between a rock and a hard place…or for me it was between a tampon and a pad, ugh. I needed help. Although I was out of my mind from caloric deficit, I was lucky enough to know that I was out of my mind and to know that I needed help if I were going to pull myself from the abyss. I reached out to my best friend and casually told her that I kinda wanted to die, explaining only that that was the reason I had been “acting weird.” She came to my rescue by having her mother (a psychologist) refer me immediately to a psychoanalyst whom she trusted. Thank you, my friend. And my friend’s mom. Recovery is another story. It involved the recognition that the feminine beast didn’t have to reign victorious. Did I need a tampon or pad again? Yes, but only a couple times, and things were looking up by then. I knew my paying the pink tax was moments away. Years have now gone by since I had surgery to remove my feminine “equipment” (ovaries, uterus, breasts). It has made all the difference…but I’m still kinda OCD, heh.