I linked to Third Wheel ED a couple of months ago, a post in which Jamie mused on the power of hair that I absolutely adored. After that, she reached out and offered to write a guest post, saying, “Currently as I’m going through my recovery, I am struggling with finding clothes that are both comfortable and appropriate for a work setting, and that simultaneously satisfy my gender expression with my body’s new shape. I would love to talk more about the process of figuring this out and finding clothes etc because I think this is a much larger problem that people don’t talk about.” I said I’d be honored, and here we are!
Please be aware that this a post discusses disordered eating.
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Musings on Clothing in Eating Disorder Recovery and Gender Exploration
Body image, like gender identity and gender expression, is dynamic. It shapes and is shaped by many different aspects of our lives. Learning to tolerate and accept my body has been compounded by my eating disorder, my questioning and exploration of gender identity and expression, and sexual trauma. Never having felt comfortable in my own skin, I felt like the only way I could fathom tolerating my body was to become as small as possible – to essentially eradicate a visible image of my body.
For a while I’ve considered my identity to be largely constructed by my eating disorder. Anorexia though, is not an identity, but rather a ferocious illness. In recovery, a common question posed is, “Who are you without your eating disorder?” As I remove myself from eating disorder behaviors, I am able to see what has been hiding beneath the illness… and that is my true identity.
My true identity, one that aligns (right now) with gender fluidity, has no idea how to dress herself, and spends way too much time contemplating clothes in the closet. I used to be comfortable with the ambiguity of saying, “I don’t know and I don’t care how I express my gender because really I’m just me”. I think the false sense of control I gained from my eating disorder helped me manage the lack of control I felt around my identity, and in a way, my gender didn’t feel any more complex than being human in general. But now, as I stare blankly at clothes in my closet, uncertain how to express my gender on a given day, I feel a loss of language for my experience. I feel sub-human, unreal…and physically naked.
For much of my life, societal standards to conform pressured me to either wear clothes I never felt comfortable in, or to only inhabit huge sweatpants and sweatshirts in an attempt to hide my shrinking body. In reality, I quickly learned that the more I’ve tried to physically align my outward appearance to my assigned gender in an effort to pass as invisible, the more visible my eating disorder made me become. Note: Shrinking and isolation do not actually make you disappear.
Clothing is a personal form of expression, and it’s a very obvious way we can become visible to others. Clothes help you be in the present moment with your body. They have the potential to help you accept your body rather than try to change it. Not to harp on the power of arbitrary cloth, but the clothes we wear on our skin are one of the most intentional creative efforts we can take towards building self-worth. I’m learning that uninhibited visibility results in meaningful self-power. This is why I’m on an epic search to find clothes that make me feel like giving off the sentiment that “I am here,” rather than “Please don’t see me.” It might seem like a simple question, but I’m stuck:
How does someone who is simultaneously recovering from an eating disorder and exploring gender identity and expression get dressed in the morning?
It’s a work in progress. A process that thus far consists of questioning what it is that dictates my clothing choices (e.g. is it my true self, my eating disorder, or my fears driven by trauma)? While these factors can never be viewed entirely as mutually exclusive, I want my true self to be in charge, because she is the authentic one. Each morning I stumble to the closet and ask myself, “Who is showing up today?” Depending on my answer, I subsequently ask, “Why do I feel this way and for whom am I dressing like this?” If the answer is not for my true self, then I reevaluate.
Today, I still strive to shut down my eating disorder voice. I like to dress in clothes that make me feel powerful, comfortable and unapologetically dapper. Logistically, finding clothes that exploit the false binaries set up by societal gendered standards is a challenge. I want to find clothes that give me words, provide me with a language to describe what it means for me to feel comfortable in my clothed body.
I’m okay with this being a continual, ever changing process. That is, in essence, what gender fluidity implies. I want to stay connected to and build tolerance for existing in my body, though, no matter what gender or nongender feels right in the moment.
I’m making a conscious effort to release the pressure I feel to love my body and I’m meeting it half way with a peace offering. Part of recovering from my eating disorder has involved letting go of what I wanted and thought I needed my body to look like in order to feel safe. This false ideal was undoubtedly influenced by fear, misogyny, and cissexist ideas of femininity and masculinity. So just like I have begun to let go of the unattainable body image that almost killed me, I am going to challenge and disrupt the way I view my body in terms of gender identity and expression as I continue in my recovery from my eating disorder. I am on a mission to figure out how to dress myself in such a way that simultaneously fulfills my need for comfort and authentic gender expression. In doing this, I will remind myself that my body is not at fault and it never has been.
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Jamie (OJ) blogs about her current recovery from an eating disorder, alongside her partner’s perspective on their blog, thirdwheelED. Jamie’s writing interests include: general mental health and eating disorder recovery, LGBTQ issues and perspectives, and gender justice. You’re most likely to find her in a coffee shop with her journal and a book, trying to master the (implausible) acts of reading and writing simultaneously.