By Megan Duffy
In June 2020, I was listening to writer and podcast editor Susan Burton discuss her new memoir, Empty, on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and wasn’t sure I could make it to the end of the interview. I had just finished year five of my tumultuous relationship with eating disorder (ED) recovery. Beginning when I was twelve, I had been binging, restricting, and purging with compulsive exercise, in an endless cycle of food obsession and self-punishment. Over time, what I ate, when I ate, and how long I exercised had become the basic framework of my identity and self-worth. Most people didn’t know this, but I did. This was how I saw myself. This was, essentially, all that mattered.
Full disclosure: when I heard the premise of Susan’s memoir I did an eye-roll: ah, another memoir about an eating disorder, I thought. Probably the story of a skeletal figure dragging an IV through a sterile clinic. I predicted a skinny woman’s anorexic journey, one in which I’d be entirely unable to locate my own disorder; in other words, yet another example to make me feel even more alone. I had read several of this genre already. Did I really need another one? Each one had left me feeling fat and unqualified for membership in the ED community.
My ED is solitary. Up until the spring of 2020, the only people I ever spoke to honestly about it were my therapists, my physician, and my secret lover—conversations intentionally confined and inherently confidential. Anyone else I dared to tell was treated to my canned declaration: Believe it or not, I have an eating disorder. You wouldn’t know it to look at me of course, because I’m fat. I immediately interpreted their blank, uncomfortable stares as agreement—right, how can YOU have an eating disorder? I never considered that perhaps their discomfort was rooted in my labeling myself fat because, in their reality, I wasn’t.
I listened to the entire Fresh Air interview with Susan Burton. How could I not? Within minutes, I felt as if I were listening to a familiar voice, one that had been whispering in my head for twenty-five years. Susan said that no one knew she had an ED, that she didn’t even “look sick.” She hid it well. Not only did she talk honestly about her restricting, but she was also frank about her binging, something I have always been deeply ashamed to discuss (after seven years of therapy, I have only just this year revealed to my therapist that binging was a major part of my disorder). I was too embarrassed to share that I wanted food in excess ALL THE TIME. How gluttonous, how gross, how out of control! Susan was open about all of this. When the interview was finished, I knew I had to buy her book.
When I finished Empty, I immediately wanted to contact Susan. Hers was the first account of having an ED that felt like my experience. Within a few weeks of my e-mail, Susan wrote me back and asked if I’d be willing to discuss ED with her for a future episode of This American Life. She wasn’t sure if the episode would ever actually come to fruition, but because she had received such an overwhelming response, detecting several common themes in the responses, she felt it would be worth exploring. I said yes without hesitation.
This was entirely out of character for me—agreeing to meet a stranger to talk about my ED with the understanding that parts of the conversation might be broadcast on one of the nation’s most respected and popular radio programs. While the risk was great, for the first time in my life, I didn’t let that stop me. I was hungry for a connection, for the chance to be heard by someone who might understand me, someone who might help me feel less alone.
Susan and I spoke in July 2020. She asked me to tell her about the origins of my ED, and I just started riffing, determined to be as honest as possible. My main goal was to help others understand that what they may be unwilling to look at in their own lives was not that uncommon, was not a burden they had to carry alone for years as I did. I wanted to peel away the thick layer of secrecy, once and for all.
As we continued discussing the covert nature of our disorders, I blurted out, without thinking: “I think the secrecy, to be honest, is… it’s that eating disorders, at least for me, are deeply tied to sexuality. I think that’s why it’s such a hard thing for me to talk about because it’s very much tied to that.” I didn’t exactly know how to elaborate on this at the time, but I knew it to be an absolutely true statement. For as long as I can recall, I have aligned my body image with my psycho-sexual self. Though I had never said so out loud, nor publicly attempted to explore and interrogate this for myself, I’ve always known that my body image, my sexuality, and my mental health are all inextricable from one another.
Months went by between my conversation with Susan and the This American Life episode, yet I remained both haunted and fascinated by my spontaneous declaration linking body image with sexuality. I began to look back on my life as a sexual being—the origins, the questions, the shame, the desire—and how they all might relate to the strictures and punishments I would impose on my body. How and why did this happen to me?
While research has established disproportionate rates of eating disorders within LGBT communities more generally, the impact of eating disorders within bisexual communities specifically is still an emerging area of study, as documented by researchers Lacie Parker and Jennifer Harriger in a 2020 review. Parker and Harriger break down the risk factors specifically associated with minority stress and disordered eating in bisexual females, based on the limited research available. I recognize my own experiences in the risks they document for body dysmorphia: low self-esteem; relationship dissatisfaction; tension around physical intimacy; appearance dissatisfaction related to internalized beauty standards; concealment of sexual orientation; sexual objectification.
Further, there is another risk factor highlighted in this review that I identify with: internalized biphobia. Until now, I have been reluctant to confront biphobia within myself, yet now I believe it to be the underlying cause for my eating disorder. Biphobia seems to be such an ancient part of me, a feeling as natural as the experience of sunlight on my skin. It just is, ever since I first identified my bifurcated sexuality as a child.
I was around 10 when I began to be cognizant of that exhilarating but slightly menacing prickle I would occasionally feel in my groin whenever I rubbed my legs together. This sensation was activated not only by squeezing my thighs but also by watching certain movies like The Goonies. I noticed something when I saw that film on the big screen for the first time: whenever Josh Brolin came on the screen or spoke in that deep teenage boy voice, I felt a piercing but delicious nudge in what I would later identify as my clitoris. But also, whenever Kerri Green sauntered across the screen in her tiny cheerleader outfit, her red mane bobbing like a bushy foxtail, I had the same sensation—a little poking forth of that tiny nub, of being snapped awake by a sparkle of light. I remember not fully registering this feeling in my cerebral cortex; rather, it was primal, located down in the realm of the lizard, tucked away yet terrifically potent.
As I cycled through crushes on boys and obsessions with girls as a teenager and young adult, I began to notice that the primal physical sensation I felt rising in me traveled with different emotional companions—depending on whether the feeling had been triggered by a male or a female. Arousals triggered by girls were accompanied by a feeling of confusion, as bodily stimulation transformed into bodily shame. By some sort of sinister alchemy, I transferred my desire into a redoubtable feeling of physical hideousness. My abdomen and pelvic area suddenly felt abnormally large and grotesque. I felt massive in my physical space as if sexual desire was caloric, spreading uncontrollably. I assumed my mutation was visible to everyone, especially the initial (female) object of my desire.
The emotional saddlebags that came with my attraction to boys, on the other hand, were marked with a desire filtered through a significant layer of fear—would this boy know I was also attracted to girls? Would he then automatically find me disgusting, large, masculine? Would he see beyond my femininity and into my (hidden) bisexuality? Did my attraction to girls make me somehow less female? I have never felt anything BUT female, but my fear of being labeled a “dyke” in high school caused me to hyper-feminize both my voice and my appearance when pursuing boys. Was I acting a part to disguise my desire for both sexes? Arousal and shame began to intersect in my body. I would find myself fantasizing about kissing and touching whichever boy had catalyzed my arousal but hanging over my shoulder was a constant knowledge of my secret nature. What would happen if the lipstick were kissed off my lips? What would happen if I let a primal growl escape my throat? The risk was too extreme. My (caloric) desire might expand beyond my control and my body might betray me, and then the entire world would know that my hunger was boundless.
Sadly, over time, I began to equate any type of desire I felt for any boy or girl with confirmation of my massive and repugnant body. Any time I would feel aroused—whether sexually, by hunger, by fear, or by laughter—I almost immediately felt rotund. No amount of rigorous tamping down could burn those calories—I would absorb them and, of course, they’d burrow like seeds and my body would cultivate them into fat. I then automatically assumed that this fat, this hideous bulk, would be visible to everyone everywhere.
This way of being characterized most of my adult life: thirty years of body dysmorphia, disordered eating, binging, restricting, purging with compulsive exercise, and constant body surveillance. At my worst, I was exercising three to four hours per day, eating a maximum of 500 calories five days per week, and allowing myself to totally binge two days per week. In between, I also used laxatives (which began to wreak havoc on my liver). Eventually, my menstrual cycle became unpredictable as well as painful. I wasn’t sleeping. I couldn’t concentrate. My mind and my body were failing me. But I was “in control.”
My constant, punitive, and vigilant efforts to not be seen were so rigid, so utterly necessary for my survival, that they led me to abandon friends, wiggle my way out of social events, skip lunch at work so I could have an extra hour of exercise, wear excessively baggy clothing, hide my face under my curtain of thick hair, and more. I did everything I could to be anonymous, hidden, and covered (even now, as the pandemic continues into its third year, I am thankful for my mask and wear it almost everywhere, including places that do not require it). In short, I have proceeded through much of my life as a living embodiment of self-inflicted bi-erasure, which I now identify as internalized biphobia.
In 2014, psychologists Melanie Brewster and Brandon Velez led a path-breaking study of disordered eating in bisexual women. Given past studies that have shown higher rates of disordered eating in bisexual women compared to both lesbian and heterosexual women, these researchers felt it was imperative to examine two “salient” minority stressors for bisexual women: first, anti-bisexual discrimination, and second, internalized biphobia connected to experiences of objectification. Brewster and Velez posited that looked at in tandem, anti-bisexual discrimination and sexual objectification experienced by bisexual women may be internalized, becoming the engines that cause some women to conform to sociocultural standards of beauty. This then directly contributes to body shame, surveillance, and disordered eating. As hypothesized, the results of this study indicate that “anti-bisexual discrimination was related positively and significantly to internalization of socio-cultural standards of attractiveness, internalized biphobia, and body shame,” as well as “body surveillance and eating disorder symptoms” (Brewster, 2013).
My experiences support this hypothesis. The Brewster and Velez study has given me a better understanding of how internalized biphobia gives way to “significant unique links with internalization of sociocultural standards of attractiveness.” My near-constant self-monitoring of my appearance and my fear of being judged negatively for my physical appearance clearly activated my own disordered relationship with my body. I now have little doubt that this could be true of many other bisexual women. I am not alone. This is reassuring, but what can we do to ease the struggle?
A new collaborative study (2021) conducted by Grace B. Jhe, Ethan H. Mereish, Ethan, Allegra R.Gordon, Julie M. Woulfe, and Sabra Katz- Wise looked at bisexual minority stress (anti-bisexual discrimination) in relation to body esteem and emotional eating. However, unlike the previous studies, the research team focused not only on minority stressors, but also on resilience. They looked at both individual-based and community-based resilience to understand how to mitigate these stressors. This is of particular interest to me as I have just begun to emerge into a nascent sense of “personal agency,” a component of individual-based resilience, both about my sexuality as well as in relation to my eating disorder.
Since I had that conversation with Susan Burton in 2020, I have begun to accept that the deluded yet pernicious monster called body dysmorphia could be internalized biphobia in disguise. My younger self couldn’t fathom facing my bisexuality in a world so unequipped for meaningful and open discussion about this sexual identity, so I absorbed the shame and stress into my own body instead. Even today, my adult self doesn’t want to admit that I harbor a significant amount of biphobia. I still restrict and then purge, sometimes—looking for socially acceptable ways to get away with it. My mirrors still betray me occasionally. But whenever I gaze into my reflection, I feel the absence of the added weight of feeling so alone.
Megan Duffy is a research librarian, poet, painter, mother, and bisexual activist. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her children and her partner.