How my gender identity impacted my eating disorder as a man of transgender experience
Three years into my recovery from Anorexia, the doctors told my parents that it would be a miracle if I made it through the night.
Fast forward ten years and I’m still here. I want to share my story to inspire hope – not just hope that recovery is possible but hope of surviving the pain of recovery. If you are reading this and thinking ‘yes, recovery is possible for some, but not me’, you aren’t alone.
The pain of having an eating disorder is almost unspeakable – the loneliness, the sadness, the fear, the shame, the guilt, the grief, the hopelessness, the powerlessness, the absolute despair and suffering, and worst of all the feeling that nobody in your life understands what is going on in your world.
One of the questions I kept getting asked by therapists was ‘Where do you see yourself in recovery?’ It wasn’t an easy question to answer but perhaps a time to self-reflect.
I joined an eating disorder support group in a desperate attempt to find the strength to fight the losing battle inside my head. One morning I walked into the room to find a plastic castle in the middle of the floor, surrounded by a barrier made of popsicle sticks, twigs, pipe cleaners, string wool and bits of fabric.
‘That castle represents freedom from your eating disorder’, the therapist said, ‘and all of that,’ pointing to the big pile of mess, ‘represents the obstacles that get in the way, the roadblocks to your recovery’.
I put myself directly under the mess – ‘I’m trapped and tangled with no way out’ I said. That’s how I saw myself, trapped and tangled. I couldn’t ever see myself getting to that castle. The eating disorder told me that there was nothing in that castle for me and that I’d never be completely free and that if I were to let go of my eating disorder, I would be letting go of myself.
Anorexia was taking my life but at the same time it was giving me life. Not a life, but an existence. When I looked in the mirror, I saw the real me, not an emaciated body, like those on the outside looking in.
My eyes saw a flat chest, little to no hips and hair all over my body. My eyes saw a man in the mirror. It was a battle of survival – recovering to survive physically or staying sick to survive emotionally.
I identify as a man of transgender experience. I was born in a female body and am now living life as a male. Gaining weight was a threat to my survival – ‘I cannot navigate life in a female body’ but losing weight was also a threat to my survival – death. My brain was stuck in survival mode. Fighting against itself.
Seeking help for my eating disorder led me on a path to self-discovery. All that time I spent in treatment; I was getting treated for an eating disorder that I could not understand. I was not like the others in the room. I felt different. I had so much shame in saying this out loud. I suffered alone.
Being transgender and having an eating disorder are two very lonely experiences.
I spent 6 years in and out of hospital and during this time found my struggle with my gender identity to be a barrier to treatment. I didn’t see or hear of any recovery journey like mine and at no stage did a health professional identify the possibility that my gender identity was impacting my eating disorder treatment and provide me with support.
When I began my transition from female to male, life started to look a little brighter but then I was faced with the challenges of not living up to the masculine ideals of being muscular and having big broad shoulders and a small waist.
My anorexia then morphed into trying to get big.
The eating disorder was still well and truly alive, it was just packaged differently. The tower of shame was growing.
Not only did I want to hide being transgender, I wanted to hide my anorexia diagnosis as it’s so often portrayed as something only females experience, and this was a stab in the back in trying to reclaim my gender identity. I put all my worth into my appearance to affirm my gender as a man in society, so I could feel loved and accepted and gain a sense of belonging.
I thought once I was able to affirm my gender socially and medically, the dysphoria would go away, the anorexia would go away, the self-hate and loathing would go away.
These things did improve, temporarily, but I still wasn’t happy. I was so painfully disconnected from myself and others. I got so caught up worrying about how the world saw me and so consumed with trying to fit in and be loved by others that I forgot to love myself.
Picking up the phone and saying I’m not okay, I need help, was that loving part of me that was always there, I just couldn’t see it. Being able to safely explore my story with a therapist helped me to see my inherent worth and honour my authentic self.
Recovery gave me gifts I could never have expected. I started focusing inward and realised that everything externally becomes a by-product of who you are at your core, not the other way around. Nothing external could ever make me feel whole.
In the times we feel the most flawed and defective we often don’t need a solution to take the pain away but rather we need to be seen and heard and accepted for who we are. Recovery taught me to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
The pain I experience daily, if not brought to my awareness, can completely consume me and keep me stuck. But if I see the beauty within the pain, I am pushed to move beyond it and find meaning through it. Pain has given me purpose and that is to help others live authentically. To help others step into their truth and live vulnerably. To help others see their own light in the darkness.
I support you to ask yourself this question – who am I beyond the eating disorder? And just remember that who you are is always enough.
Reece (he/him) was diagnosed with Anorexia at 19 years old. As a young aspiring filmmaker, he was shattered when he had to withdraw from his degree. It wasn’t until a mentor in his life helped him to reconnect with hope that he went on to complete his studies and explore the world of documentary filmmaking. He found himself bringing stories to life that were rooted in shame and stigma and needed a safe space to be told. In 2018 he stepped out from behind the camera and well beyond his comfort zone, taking an adventure into the unknown by enrolling in an intensive writing course with a bunch of complete strangers in a foreign country. He set off by himself to Paris to write his life story, exposing his vulnerability by performing slam poetry at the Le Chat Noir, revealing his personal life to an audience of strangers, many of whom thanked him afterwards for being courageous and embracing his true self. This experience brought his innermost passion to the surface and that is to empower others to embrace their authenticity, live courageously and connect with their heart. Reece is a passionate advocate for creating a more inclusive society. He works in disability and is a Mental Health Peer Work student.
- For support with eating disorders or body image concerns, connect with Butterfly’s National Helpline counsellors by calling 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673), chat online or email firstname.lastname@example.org | Our counsellors receive LGBTQIA+ training and are available 7 days a week, 8am-midnight (AEDT).
- To find qualified eating disorder practitioners, search Butterfly’s Referral Database. You can customise your search to see healthcare professionals that specialise in treating the LGBTQIA+ community.
- Eating Disorders Victoria offers a dedicated eating disorder support group for LGBTQIA+ people. Find out more about the ‘Bloom’ support group here.
To read more lived experience insights from the LGBTQIA+ community, visit Butterfly’s Body Pride Resource Hub.