The right way for women to disappear

I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that once you have anorexia, you never quite recover from it. It sounds too fatalistic, too hopeless and yet at the same time too self-indulgent.

I am 40 years old. It is nearly three decades since I was first diagnosed and I have been what is considered a healthy weight for most of the past two of them. While my eating habits are not necessarily normal, I would not describe myself as still suffering from anorexia itself. If anything, what I suffer from is not being anorexic any more.

I am not at home in the body I have. I’ve never got over the desire to tell people, the first time I meet them, that this isn’t the real me. The real me is thin, breastless, narrow-hipped. This version of me is a poor compromise, a pathetic accommodation. I look like a woman but actually I identify as a human being.

In Hunger Strike, Susie Orbach describes the way in which refeeding programmes imposed on anorexia sufferers betray a desire to “normalise” women not just physically, but socially: “The general consensus is that the patient has recovered when the normal weight is reached and appropriate sex role functioning is achieved.” Yet, she goes on to point out, “if the body protest statement could but be read – be it one of fatness or thinness – it would be seen to be one of the few ways that women can articulate their internal experience.” I look back on the force-feeding to which I was subjected and see in it a type of conversion therapy. Womanhood, I had decided, was not for me. I sought to roll back puberty and remain stuck in time. The medical profession said no, you must go forward. And so I did, but it hurt because the world I went into remained one in which femaleness and personhood are not always permitted to co-exist.

This is one of the reasons why I am a feminist. I do not identify as a woman but it remains the social class into which, by virtue of having a female body, I have been shoved. I do not think I am the problem. I do not think my body is the problem. Still, as this body still confines me – as it is me – it remains a site of personal struggle.

Speaking to BBC Radio Women’s Hour, clinical psychologist Dr Bernadette Wren describes how “we live in a world where people alter their bodies, surgically or otherwise, and this freedom is available for people as they get older”:

Maybe we just have to be acknowledging that that is a liberty that people have, that these things are possible, technologically, and people will avail themselves of those things. It’s not really for us to approve or disapprove.

Wren is referring to the fact that rapidly increasing numbers of children and young people, most of them female, are being diagnosed with gender dysphoria. As far as she is concerned, it is neither a moral nor a political issue. If female people are unhappy with their bodies then they should have the right to change them – albeit if, and only if, the problem is located internally, with no seepage into an outside world riven with gendered power imbalances. I find such a viewpoint not only naïve, but somewhat terrifying.

For a long time I have felt a parallel can be made between eating disorders and gender confirmation surgery as forms of self-harming body modification. It’s not a comparison I make lightly, just for the hell of it. Indeed, every time I’ve made it, I’ve had to put up with the ritual public Shaming of the TERF, alongside the trivialisation of a condition which led to several long-term hospitalisations against the “realness” of true gender dysphoria. It’s been suggested to me that anorexia is an attempt to “express your feels” as opposed to the real suffering of “having a skin that metaphorically itches all the time” (as if anyone who’s ever had anorexia would not understand that!). A piece I wrote about the inappropriateness of positioning female body hatred within the context of “cis-ness” got me to Level 2 on the Blockbot. According to the official narrative, anorexia is at best mental illness, at worst vanity; transness, on the other hand, is politically radical, unquestionably authentic and quite incomprehensible to “the cis”.

A woman who starves puberty into remission is sick, so sick you can section her, decree her officially incapable of knowing what her own body needs.  One who drugs puberty into remission is not sick; she is, on the contrary, a mystic emissary from Planet Gender. Her – his, their – word is law. A woman who, like me, tries to kill herself because no amount of starvation will make her breasts fully disappear is considered mad. One who merely threatens to kill herself should no surgeon be willing to slice off her breasts for her – well, that person is merely a victim of medical gatekeeping.

Why is this?

Why is breast binding an acceptable form of self-harm when self-induced vomiting is not? Why is the permanent removal of female flesh so much more palatable than what may only be a temporary withering? Why is one person’s visualisation of their breastless “true” self authentic and another’s merely delusional? Above all, why is a rejection of female flesh only acceptable in those who reject any identification with womanhood altogether?

The difference is not in degrees of pain and suffering, nor does it lie in an ability to “prove” that one’s beliefs are real. The difference is political. What matters is not how much you hate the skin you’re in, but how you frame it within a broader context of gender and sex-based inequalities.

Writing in the New Republic, Phoebe Maltz Bovey contends that “there’s a profound difference between a cisgender woman’s unease with traditional femininity and a trans man’s discomfort with having been assigned the wrong gender.”:

I have no wish to trivialize the body image (and reproduction-related, and sexual-violence-related) concerns that many cis women face. But all things being equal, it’s clear that the latter complaint is a bigger deal than the former.

To which I can only say no, not necessarily. One person’s being assigned the wrong gender is another person’s being forced to occupy the wrong social construct. If I believed gender was purely a matter of inner identity, I would declare myself not to be a woman in a heartbeat. The fact that I don’t do this reveals nothing about my own personal discomfort. It is because I do not believe “reproduction-related and sexual-violence-related concerns” are mere “added extras” to the sexism cocktail. I see them as fundamental to how gender operates as a class system and on that basis, I couldn’t identify out of womanhood if I tried (because I have tried. I tried so hard it almost killed me).

Why is it okay to drug yourself out of puberty but not to starve yourself out of it? Do we think the former is safer? As someone who eventually crashed into puberty in her early twenties, confused, panicked and isolated, I’d question that assumption. Besides, since the battle to be a person with breasts who isn’t seen to be asking for it – “it” being street harassment and objectification, the spoils of femininity – is apparently already lost, why not let female people decide for themselves how to make their escape? Seeing as we’ve given up on changing the social structures that make inhabiting a female body as a woman so utterly soul-destroying.

Women like me are told that the political framing of our own dysphoria makes us dangerous and evil. Women who take a different tack are permitted to exit womanhood only if they leave their politics at the door.  So many women, expressing so much unhappiness, and we think it progressive to ignore the social context. If your breasts offend you, chop them off! But whom does the female body really offend? And when do we get to be human, all of us, every part, every single inch of flesh?

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