I was just starting fourth grade when I self-diagnosed as anorexic, using a charming pastel illustration in The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls. When American Girl published this book, I don’t think they meant it as a tool of comparison, but that’s what it became to me. I pored over the drawings, rendered in all different shapes and sizes, to pick out the ones I wanted to look like and the ones I did not. The girls in the drawings that I was the most comfortable with had long, skinny limbs, knobby knees and elbows, and small, pert faces. In short, they looked like prepubescent me, an ideal I chased for the first five years of my eating disorder.
The Care and Keeping of You talks about body hair, acne, training bras, tampons, and eating disorders, but it doesn’t mention sex. The company’s reasoning for this exclusion makes sense; the authors are quoted in a 2018 article in The Atlantic describing the target audience “on the front end of puberty.” The assumption is that eight-year-old kids don’t think about their bodies outside of boo-boos or how they’re changing as they age. As an eight-year-old kid with an eating disorder, though, that wasn’t the case.
I learned about anorexia from living in my own body, long before the idea of being concerned about armpit hair even crossed my mind. I saw and felt my body change through the lens of somebody terrified of weight gain—somebody under the impression that everybody looked at her with the same ruthless gaze she projected on herself. By seventh grade, I had already spent ten weeks in a partial inpatient program with nothing to do except watch myself slowly, slowly expand. By high school, I knew a lot more about sex and what boys wanted from my body.
Surprisingly, that seemed to line up with what I wanted from it, too: beauty, comfort, pleasure, things whose ties to my body had been severed long ago, at least in my mind. And, even more surprisingly, men seemed to find those in me. It feels good to be sweet-talked. It feels better to assume the power that it momentarily gives your body. And so sex was an offering at a shrine of flattery, a thank-you gift, a party favor given out to endcap an ego boost. I started having sex young, only a few years after seeing myself naked would result in a panic attack. I think I can attribute this at least partly to the persistent need for validation that I couldn’t get from myself. When in doubt, outsource.
It was after I became sexually active that my eating disorder began to manifest outside of my own body. It stared at me from the eyes of men as they peeled my clothes off. For a while, I always asked, “Do I look okay?” when a new boy lifted my shirt over my head. Looking back, it sounds pathetic, but at the time it was always the most important question I asked. Really, I wasn’t even asking the guy—I was asking myself, and it was far higher up on the list than “Do I want to do this?” or “Does this feel good?” My partners were usually confused by the question. Some laughed. Some ignored it. And, pushed back into a dingy corner of my mind is another, more sinister question: if somebody else wants the body I have spent so long abusing, why shouldn’t I let them have it? One woman’s trash, another man’s treasure.
As far as I know—and unfortunately, the qualifier has proven necessary—I’ve never had sex without giving consent. Whether it’s always been enthusiastic, sober consent is debatable, though, and it has always been tinged by an extra layer of influence: the disorder I’ve now struggled with for more years than I haven’t. My sexuality is entwined with body dysmorphia and aesthetics, imbued with memories of lying naked on the floor, checking to see if my stretched-out stomach rose higher from the ground than a pen. Unlike so many other women, I’ve never been sexually assaulted. I can’t imagine the ferocity of pain that comes from that kind of violation. But I am all too familiar with the pain that comes from violating my own body, forsaking its health, its ability to go through puberty, and its dignity.
As I grow older, the proportion of my life that I’ve had anorexia can only grow as well. Body confidence, for me, has always been a performance; the same goes for sex positivity. At this point in my life, blessed with the all-at-once exciting and heavy responsibility of sexual freedom, the difficulty lies in finding freedom during sex—and the space in my mind to assert what I want and what I don’t. For me, sex is inevitably a threesome: me, my partner, and my eating disorder. It’s a delicate balance between rising above the dysmorphia and drowning it out with outside attention.
The care and keeping of you, eating disorder or not, might entail something different; no two anorexics, dysmorphias, or sexualities are the same. Part of my care and keeping has been the realization that not everybody who appreciates my body has a right to it—even if they grease the way with compliments. Flattery will never be enough to patch the rugged wall of body image I’ve spent years punching holes in. That will take something a lot stronger. Concrete, maybe. Until then, I’ll have to satisfy myself with recognizing the problem, practicing no, and saying to myself, “Hey. You look okay.”
By Eliza Rudalevige