In my twenties, before I could eat, I had to list everything I consumed that day: one-quarter of a gluten-free muffin, a little bit of yogurt, soup, cornbread, a side of steamed greens, and a handful of figs. (Two handfuls? What’s a handful?) I listed before I ate, while I ate, after I ate. I listed before I went to bed. I listed in my head always, sometimes on scraps of paper or within book margins. I struck through the list when I was done. I listed the way I used to wash my hands as a child: compulsively, till I was eroded, picked at, gone raw. The only time I didn’t list was in the morning, on an empty stomach, drinking black coffee.
“What do you not eat?” My professor asked before taking me out to dim sum. “Because everyone in Portland doesn’t eat something.”
I laughed. Then I listed silently in my head: gluten, meat, tropical fruits. Dairy? Maybe I was eating dairy then. The list could have been longer, but I edited it depending on who was asking or how I was feeling. Some days, I would eat refined sugar. Other days I would abstain from corn or peanuts or tofu.
I did not divulge this list to my professor, who I admired as a smart and intimidating force, someone I was sure was above cataloguing food in their head all day. This professor did not, for instance, experience anxiety because someone asked them out to lunch.
“Oh, I’ll eat anything,” I said.
I had more important things to do than list to myself the foods I had eaten. I knew this. I could have been writing for instance, or fighting patriarchy. Listing was definitely a symptom of patriarchy. I was not feminine enough to have an eating disorder, I told myself.
Sometimes I pretended I was listening when you talked, but really, I was listing the foods I had eaten, considering whether or not I could bite into the apple you were offering me.
Girls are fed images about the ideal female body and what it should be: thin, delicate, and long. We see this on magazine covers, on Instagram feeds, everywhere. It’s a common story: A teenager who hates her body goes to extremes to strip herself of carbs and whittle down her curves to one beautiful bone. There is a hunger that lives inside my queer body. My hunger is alive in the salad dinners of aging butches who starve themselves to keep the narrow hips of a teenage boy. My hunger is written on the leather-faced dykes in their fifties who don Vans and skater-wear and six-panel caps and I wonder, how do you keep your boyish figure? I watch my grandmother dykes eat and I see: They eat nothing. They exercise to compulsion. They drink their dinners.
Are they listing, too?
When I say I would rather look queer, I mean hip-less, close-cropped, flat-chested. I mean a one-word syllable like hit, kick, run, jump, bite. I mean fly.
Queer writer and activist Sam Dylan Finch writes : “My community of androgynous queers, folks who just wanted to be authentically themselves, were coming up against an impossible norm that told them their bodies were somehow not enough—that androgyny was reserved for a certain body type, and if you were some other way, you were shit out of luck.”
To queer is to blur the binary. To queer is to be a raw, ungendered state. Queer is gangle and bone. Queer is both/and. Queer is boy/girl/neither. Queer is all black and no breasts. Queer is mustache and braid.
At least, this is what I see when I see queer at the bar.
In an article for Everyday Feminism , Kris Nelson asks us to Google the word “androgyny.” I scroll through the images that come up. Upon close investigation, I find that Nelson is right, “androgyny” is displayed as a starving white woman dressed as a man. A lie that Nelson points out is this: “Thinness is code for gender neutrality.” She says: “The image we get of androgyny is so much wrapped up in gaunt faces, flat chests, and narrow hips.”
I see fat queer, too. I see curvy queer, too.
As a child, Wednesday nights were the nights I saw my dad. We would go to the Sonic drive-through and order foot-long chili cheese dogs. We unwrapped them from their tin foil, ate them on our laps. Chili slid down our chins. The taste was like salt and suntans and red dye. The smell was barbeque smoke and burnt grass. Alabama evenings, all humid and steeped in smog, would get into our hair and into our teeth. A sunset the color of a fresh gash bled across the hood of the car. I would sip my stinging soda without counting a calorie. I did not even know what a calorie was.
I did not think about what this food was doing to my body because my body had not yet started to rebel against me. I was a thin and gangly boy. I wore polo shirts and backward baseball hats and floppy hair that I hoped made me look like the skaters who lived downstairs in my dad’s apartment complex . I asked my mom what my name would have been if I were a boy . Gary? The same name as my father who did not live with us. Gary. I thought that was a nice name.
I asked my mom: If I had been a boy, do you think dad would have left?
I refused to wear dresses. I carried around a muscular GI Joe figurine who I named Bone. He was tough. He had a body like a rocket ship: powerful, sleek, nearly impossible to break.
What does tin sound like? It sounds like speed, lightness, a thing people do not need to make space for. It sounds like complete control. A bone. A muscle. A fist.
College boyfriend said to me: “If you would just go the gym a few more times each week, I bet you would really lean out. You would get, you know, muscles.”
College boyfriend would take a swig right from the milk gallon. Whole milk. He bit into cookies. I had not eaten a cookie in months, but I wasn’t on a diet. I was never on a diet. Diet was a dirty word, a weak word for people who couldn’t manage their impulses. I never wanted to seem like someone who was preoccupied with my weight or with my eating. That felt so weak. I wanted to be healthy and strong. Healthy and strong. That’s what I told people.
College boyfriend was a climber. He fashioned a bouldering wall out of plywood and hot pink holds in his bedroom. He could do pull-ups on the door frame using just the tips of his fingers. I looked at him for so long sometimes I thought I was looking at myself. I watched him pop his naked chest up from the top of a surfboard and I thought: impossible to break.
Helen Malson writes in her book The Thin Woman that while thin, boyish bodies might be seen as “cultural rejections of the feminine” and seem to “signify power and control,” thin, boyish bodies do not subvert gender entirely. “This construction also resonates with constructions of the thin body as childlike, as powerless, dependent and femininely fragile; a construction which seems far from liberatory.”
Sometimes when I walk down the street wearing men’s clothing, I wonder if I am threatening the gender binary or if I am helping to reproduce the idea that to look masculine is to be liberated. When I observe queer people beside me in the coffee shop, almost all of them are tougher than I am, and almost all of them are wearing more men’s clothing.
I eat no muffin with my coffee. I drink no milk. I pull a tough hat over short hair. I scribble lines of tough ink over tough skin. I see thin, nonbinary bodies that have sprouted wings. I see fly.
After my parents’ divorce, I started skating with the boys in my dad’s apartment complex. We ran in a tight pack, jumped concrete staircases, grinded handrails, disappeared beneath our baggy pants and the stretched necks of our plain white tees. We ate and we ate and we ate. We dropped fries down our throats, threw back packs of Skittles, sucked Cheeto dust from our fingers, and chased it down with Mountain Dew. We moved always—fast, fast, faster—and our bodies were the same. We were penciled lines that could drop in on halfpipes and spin on wheels like dancers through the streets. Girls would come to the skate park, too. Once in awhile they tried to skate, but mainly they came to watch us—us meaning the boys. And me.
One by one, the girls around me got their periods; they became women. My period stayed away for a very long time. I was in my junior year when the red came and when it did, I thought: finally . Then I thought: shit . I didn’t want to be left behind, and I had started to wonder if I would be, if there really was something different about me. This was the first time I had to face the line drawn between me and the boys and the one erased between me and the girls. My period marked the beginning of the changes, which rushed at me immediately and all at once. The changes started in my hips and crept into my chest where two oddly shaped and painful lumps formed. The changes made my face full and brought my legs to touch; no longer would people think I was a boy at the skate park, or a boy at all.
I returned to a place I used to live and I looked, as one friend put it, queer as fuck. My gender presentation was more masculine. I had reverted back to my childhood wardrobe of baseball caps and loose shirts. I had also lost weight. I noticed a difference—a distance?—in the way women talked to me. These two things felt connected: my ability to look more masculine and my thinner body. I was desperate to hold onto this new reedy body which shrank my breasts and narrowed my hips.
In Greek mythology, Limos is the goddess of starvation. Of course, she is a woman. When the King of Thessaly, Erysichthon, angers Demeter, goddess of the Harvest, Limos comes to punish Erysichthon. She puts hunger in his stomach, coats his throat with starvation, fills his mouth with famine. Erysichthon is insatiable. He eats everything, even his own body.
My first girlfriend was the first lover I had who wanted my body exactly as it was: thigh meat, back acne, all of it. But how? These were the parts of myself I despised, and as she kissed them, I began to despise her, too. To love my weakness was a kind of weakness in its own right.
First girlfriend had achieved thinness. We could measure ourselves against the same bodily obstacles, the same hormonal struggles, and she had won and I had failed. What did she feel when she kissed the skin around my armpits, when she touched the swell of stomach that edged over the side of my underwear? I licked her ear, pulled the ragged ends of her hair. Her arms were strong and sinewy, all angles, like she was ready to fight the world. Her collarbone was like a bow dipping down toward her chiseled middle. I wanted to be like that: hard and boney, a body full of fuck-you’s.
First girlfriend ate chips and sautéed large quantities of ground beef for dinner. She ate steak raw. She never exercised. I exercised all the time. I ran across cobbled streets until my heels ached and my shins had splints. I did yoga every morning. First girlfriend’s mother said: “If I was a gluten-free vegetarian, I’d have wasted away by now.”
I hadn’t wasted away, but the thought was glorious. To waste away. To leave the body. To be only the wind.
One summer, first girlfriend and I decided to eat only raw foods. It was my idea. We lasted eleven days. We ate fruit salad and kale by the handful. We made pasta from uncooked zucchini shavings and fed it to each other on plastic forks while we stood at the counter in our bikinis. We laid our starved, twentysomething bodies in the sun and burned. We drove to her mother’s vacation home in Myrtle Beach and wandered the boardwalk where other people ate fried meat off sticks. We felt better than them. We felt skinnier than them. Or at least I did. I felt good only when I felt in control. I felt good only when I could keep a promise to myself, which I almost never could.
At the beach, I would lay my head in the bowl of first girlfriend’s hips and listen to her stomach rise and fall. We would hide in the dunes and drink American Honey from the bottle. The sunset was a chemical orange. With my ear to her belly, I listened to acid digest the food she had eaten. I kissed her navel and the tendons that began beneath her bikini and disappeared into the soft meat of her inner thighs.
Meat. I am describing her body the same way I describe the food I don’t eat.
Recently, a friend explained how we operate from one of two levels of thinking. Level-one thinkers believe that in any situation either you win and the other person loses or they win and you lose or you both lose. Level-two thinkers subscribe to the belief that everyone can win. Level one operates from a belief in scarcity. There is not enough for everyone. Level two moves from abundance. I knew immediately where I stood. I have never been able to comprehend that there is enough for everyone.
When my mom told one of her friends I was queer—actually, she probably used the word bisexual, maybe lesbian—her friend said as reassurance that I had a “womanly figure,” that I would “always look like a woman.” This statement confused me. My sexual orientation was apparently deeply connected to my body. And what made me look like a woman anyway? My size-C breasts? The softness of my upper arms? The fullness of my face? Her statement embarrassed me.
What did looking like a woman mean?
At my thinnest, I stopped getting my period. I suffered from amenorrhea. But I didn’t suffer exactly.
A friend of mine had their breasts removed. I admire the swollen, red scars across their chest and consider the times when I would have done anything to stop my breasts from growing. They swim shirtless at the river and the sun touches every inch of their torso. I looked at their chiseled, T-hardening face, and attach beauty to the spare, masculine lines I see forming in them. I see beauty. I see hunger. I see something that won’t need to starve any longer.
I told myself I would not ask first girlfriend questions about her skinny, boy-dyke ex who followed her to a Pacific island where they lived together. On the island, they threw their skinny bodies into the waves. They surfed dangerous breaks. They survived. I read their text messages. Her boy-dyke ex was a long-haired, sinew-limbed, perfect gender-nonconforming person. I stalked my girlfriend and her ex’s past life on social media as I ate lentil chips. I wore hoop earrings and I had a closet full of yellow dresses and I knew how to smile so big and how to twirl my long hair into a bun on my head and how to pick out shirts that showed my cleavage. But it all felt wrong. This feminine style was a habit I had started as a teenager and never stopped. But my performance was very good. I was a very good and very beautiful girl. I studied the way the boy dyke stood in her pictures. She tilted her box-jaw up to look tough, and she didn’t smile like she meant it. She could have been a beautiful man or a handsome woman. She could have been anything she wanted.
Comparison is the thief of joy , said murals and bumper stickers everywhere.
On a flight from Amsterdam to Portland, I was pacing the aisle, overcome with the kind of whole-body anxiety I get everytime I’m on a plane. A flight attendant needed to get through with her refreshment cart. She said with annoyance: “Excuse me, sir, please move out of the way.”
I moved out of the way. Sir . The word hit me in the spine. During a time when gender was becoming so fluid, when so many of my friends identified as nonconforming, as both/and, I still felt like a woman. I was embarrassed to be called sir . In the bathroom, as we rocked over a wave of turbulence, I observed my body: the oversized black sweatshirt, the loose-fitting brown chinos, the short hair, shaved on the sides.
Did I look like a boy? Like a man? Was it because I was thin?
I’m sitting at a kitchen table watching tree branches touch each other. I am telling my best friend about a girl I want to sleep with. I describe how she looks. My friend does not care how anyone I sleep with looks. But she listens anyway. A rind of a lemon sours in the water I sip. I am so careful with certain things.
My friend is bored. I hear it in her voice. She has heard me tell many stories like this one, about girls like this girl. Lesbian dramas , she calls them.
I am eating gluten again. We are sharing a muffin. There is small freedom in that, in the ability to say yes to bread. It makes me feel powerful. I want to eat a sandwich for lunch in front of other people.
What do you want? she asks me.
To say I want complete control would be too simple of an explanation. I study the peach I slice open with my knife and place a triangle of it on the muffin. The pit is wood-colored, carved through and cavernous. Its sugar spreads out, goes sticky, turns my fingers sweet. I lick myself and think, yeah, what do I want?
I have never been able to control my impulses or my desires, though I have tried. Like Eileen Myles writes in her poem “Peanut Butter” : “I am always hungry & wanting to have sex.”
I used to run all the time. I ran and ran. I ran thirteen miles through the hills of Seattle. Thirteen miles through the Redwood Forest. Ten miles around the Willamette River in Portland. I ran in the heat of Alabama summers. Around the cold canals of Amsterdam. On the seaside streets of Sagres in Portugal. I ran. But I could never outrun myself. I was always there when my legs stopped. Same body. Same desires I couldn’t put a cage around.
Did you bring this to the potluck, my friend asks me. She is holding up a container of cellophane-colored noodles, gluten-free and made from sweet potatoes. They look nasty, and she says so. I tell her I didn’t bring them. The girl I want to sleep with is next to us. She’s confused about why I would bring the noodles. I have been eating Little Big Burger with her and she made me a bowl of glutinous vegan pasta that we ate at her kitchen table. This girl could convince me to eat almost anything. To do almost anything. I never want her to think of me as someone with an eating disorder. I never want her to see me and think: no power, no control.
At the party, this girl hands me an apple vodka shot and we run into the living room to dance to a Rihanna song. I try to channel carefree. I throw my hands over my head and wish I could be the kind of person who ate everything. I wish my hunger had a bottom I knew how to fill up.
You and I share a bag of chips then the bag of chips are gone.
I ask you: “Did I eat all of this?”
“No,” you say. “I ate a lot of them, too.”
You ask, “Where do you want to go to dinner?”
I list off everything I have eaten that day in my head, pretending I am thinking about where to eat. But I am actually considering if dinner is something I can have.