One Monday in September on a busy street in New York, my girlfriend and I fought loudly about how little I had eaten that day.
My younger brother had just visited me for a long weekend; we’d eaten our way through the boroughs like royalty. Still full of barbecue and Cuban food, I skipped breakfast the Monday he left and allotted 200 calories for lunch.
The plan derailed when my girlfriend Kaitlyn came by my office and suggested we grab a bite. When I placed my order at the soup and sandwich restaurant, she caught me.
"That's not even 300 calories," she said as we waited to pay. "That's not a meal."
"It's full of vegetables," I said. "I eat it all the time."
"That doesn't make it a meal."
We sat down at a wobbly laminated table, surrounded by hurried office workers on their lunch breaks. I tried to pretend nothing was up as I watched her shoulders clench. Had I done something wrong? Is there something bad about eating a light lunch after a gluttonous weekend?
"Camille," she said. "Say something."
"I'm going to eat the whole thing,” I said. “I have it all the time."
She packed up her untouched sandwich and walked out, tears brimming. I chased her outside.
"You always do this," she said. "You know exactly what it is you’re doing, but you refuse to believe there's a way out. "
We had never talked in public about my trouble with eating, and I was hyperaware of how many people shuffled around us, swinging in and out of the Starbucks next door.
“What do you want me to do, go back in and order something else?"
"That would be a great start, yeah."
I glanced back inside the restaurant. My legs locked. The pressure in my chest threatened to pop. 200 calories for lunch. I promised.
"I'll eat more later," I said. "It's not a big deal."
“You don't even think about what effect this has on me and everyone else in your life,” Kaitlyn said, raising her voice and locking her eyes on mine — both scolding me and scared for me. “It's not all about you."
Guilt rolled down my cheeks. She was right and she was wrong. I did think about the toll I was taking on her — maybe even too often — and so I pushed back.
"Don't tell me that I don't think about how this affects you," I said. "I hate myself for it, and I wonder if you’d be better off if I let you find someone else."
Her shoulders dropped and she let herself exhale. Her anger quieted now that I’d said out loud that I was just as scared as she was.
I shut up and she hugged me. Lower Manhattan carried on around us, but we stood on the sidewalk oblivious to honking cars and sweaty excuse-mes and falafel sizzling on the cart outside the restaurant. I hoped none of my co-workers would walk by. If they did, my head was buried too deep into her shoulder to notice.
We held on to each other and prayed to nobody in particular that I could break this — that it wouldn't break us.
I have always been obsessed with scales, BMIs, calories, and nutrition facts; they were the only tools I had to document changes in my body as a teenager before I had settled into my adult shape and size. Nutrition by number has always made sense, so I didn’t notice when, after moving to New York City for my first job two years ago, those numbers started to dictate my days again.
It is offensively easy to count calories in New York. Chain restaurants are required to post caloric content on their menus. Gym culture is inescapable. Over the tops of cubicles, I heard co-workers chatting about their fitness accomplishments. The city that never sleeps never stops running.
I nursed my infatuation with counting at the office, where snacking between meals kept my spirits down and my numbers up. One day, I unstuck a yellow Post-It note and wrote in thick Sharpie, “LTH>LTF.” A little too hungry is better than a little too full. I kept it in a desk drawer for inspiration. After I cut out snacks, I started cutting out meals.
In an office where everyone misses lunch sometimes, nobody noticed. With no room for a table or even a couch in my tiny apartment, I ate all my meals alone in bed. Kaitlyn and I were still dating long-distance at the time, and texting each other during dinner wasn’t the same as having her next to me, preparing full portions of a meal we’d lovingly cooked together.
Instead, with nobody sitting at my side, I ate as little as I wanted, proud as I'd ever been of my self-discipline. This was the biggest self-improvement project I had ever taken on, even if I didn’t have an exact end goal in mind. I wanted full control over what I put in my body.
Objectively, there is nothing wrong with knowing how many calories you take in. Balancing meals and physical activity is doctor-recommended. We wear bracelets and program our phones to remind us to put down that soda or push through that extra mile. So when I organized my every day around netting as few calories as possible, I didn't think of it as an eating disorder. I thought of it as math.
Distorted body image takes on a tricky dynamic in a relationship between two women. For every unkind thought you've ever had about yourself, it's likely she's told herself the same. When you restrict and exercise and count, count, count, it's because of the same societal forces that have inflicted both of you — inflicted all women, equally and indiscriminately.
Of the "big four" health concerns lesbians are disproportionately prone to — smoking, drinking, breast cancer, and obesity — obesity has been of particular interest to researchers lately. A survey from 2013 has affirmed that while lesbians and bisexual women skew heavier than straight women, they're also less concerned about being overweight. One possible, pleasing explanation is that queer women tend not to care about fitting the standard of "beauty" perpetuated by — and designed to please — straight men.
I’ve long identified as bisexual, and even though I’m now in an amazing relationship with another woman, I can't fully relate to this hypothesis. The last time I stopped eating, I was pursuing a man who ran half marathons, climbed mountains, and dated a gaggle of beautiful women with delicate waists and legs like lightning rods. Now he was gone, and I had Kaitlyn, and I couldn’t care less whether men liked how I looked. I should have been immune to this illness — this contagion so often shaped by patriarchy’s impossible demands of women. I didn’t believe I was sick because this wasn’t my disease to have.
A woman I love loves me for me, I thought to myself every night on the subway home. Why do I care about looking like what men want?
Last May, I weighed less than I had as a sophomore in high school. I was coming up on my one-year anniversary in New York, work was stressful, my then-roommate and I were on shaky terms, and I had all but stopped eating.
At the end of the month, Kaitlyn would be moving from Chicago to New York to move in with me, a certified big step. It was a convenient coincidence that my attachment to counting calories reached its peak just before this major life change.
After a year of long distance, Kaitlyn and I were both eager for our new life to start. She knew I’d been having trouble with my body — she commented that I looked thinner on each of our visits — but we didn’t see each other often enough for her to get a clear image of how calculated my eating rituals had become.
Even though living together sounded like a dream, I couldn't let go of the fear that my strict schedule would unravel. I wouldn't have time for two-hour nightly workouts, and she would see what I ate or didn’t eat. Presented with the option of healing with the girl I loved by my side, I was shamefully afraid of giving up my comfortable, controlled routine.
I brainstormed ways to keep it up under our shared roof: I could lie about my lunches, do push-ups at the office, or even start purging. I could make it work.
Or I could let it go, break up with counting, and nurture my healthy relationship with the girl I loved. But I couldn't do both.
When moving day came, my parents and Kaitlyn's made the trip north to lend a hand. They were an immense help, but by the last day everyone was sick of everyone else; shuttling a U-Haul around Manhattan in June will do that to you. My patience broke when we all went out to dinner that night.
The house was a mess, we had so much more to do, and my family was fighting at the restaurant, so I took charge of myself the only way I knew how. In the middle of the meal, I escaped to the bathroom to cry and quietly pronounced myself un-hungry when I got back to the table. It was immature, but it gave me back some control amid all the frantic energy.
When we got home (sans parents) and I confessed that I was hungry, Kaitlyn didn't shame me for skipping dinner or tell me I'd brought it on myself. Instead, she made us a plate of cheese and crackers to share and then produced a box of Trader Joe's cookies from one of her suitcases.
I was shaken from fighting and embarrassed to stray from my conviction not to eat, but this space felt safer than the public display of a restaurant; it was not quite a haven where calorie counts no longer applied, but a transitional place where I could remember what it felt like to eat for pleasure again. I still felt vulnerable, my throat raw and lumpy as I swallowed bite after bite — but I chose to eat, just like I'd chosen not to an hour before.
Eventually, though my road to body self-care was studded with disagreements and occasional interventions from Kaitlyn, I reached a place where I could focus less on undoing damage and more on taking proactive steps. I started eating breakfast again. I ordered a subscription of boxed healthy snacks to my office and let myself have one every other day. I quit the gym, kicking and screaming. I talked about food in therapy and cried on the bus home.
Even with Kaitlyn next to me now, cheerleading and coaching and sometimes doling out necessary tough love, letting go of my decade-long yearning for physical perfection is not an easy task. Because it doesn't actually matter what men want; it's about a universal, inhuman ideal of female beauty, a sublime goal that lingers no matter who you date. The standards are set. The damage is done.
But even if I can’t upend the norms by myself, I can challenge them — by loving a body that the magazines I grew up reading say is not good enough, and by letting someone else love it too.
When old bad habits tempt me, I remember that first night Kaitlyn and I spent alone, after our parents had gone and the furniture was built. To wash down the Trader Joe’s cookies, we opened a bottle of champagne and ordered in cheesecake and watched Netflix all night. For the first time in a year, I didn't check the label to see how many calories I was taking in. In that moment, it didn't matter. I could be myself in this body, in this house, with this woman.
Recovery isn't a flipped light switch. It's a dimmer that hums even at its lowest setting. After half a year, many sessions of therapy, and a few loud fights, I ripped the Post-It note in my office drawer into Scrabble tiles. I joined a new, smaller gym, where I’ve learned to exercise responsibly. My therapist suggested I never weigh myself again. Body self-consciousness is not a spirit that lifts out of you and never comes back, so I'm preparing for it to come and go, while I collect habits to help me muffle numbers that never stop shouting.
Making peace with food has been a shared experience. Kaitlyn and I cook together, go out for drinks, do yoga occasionally, watch Food Network constantly. Food, as it turns out, is a huge part of our relationship. Therapy and common sense remind me to get better not because it makes someone else's life easier, but because I owe it to myself. While I’m working toward loving my body on my own behalf, for its protection, its strength, and its power, it would be dishonest to say Kaitlyn’s validation doesn’t make a difference. She fills in the gaps.
Not long ago, I came home from the gym giddy after a milestone and played a joke on her.
"Guess how many calories I burned on the elliptical?" I asked.
I heard her breath catch. "I don't know."
"I don't know, either. I turned that function off today. First time ever."
Kaitlyn beamed and hugged me and told me she was proud. We opened a couple of beers, made dinner, and the hum softened.