Sometimes controlling what one eats can be liberating, a way to discover and manifest the self. Other times it’s an unhealthy symptom of society’s rigid gender norms. Angel Archer meditates on her body as battleground and the metaphysics of not eating.
My parents spanked me as a child. They raised me in an authoritarian new religious movement with terrifying ideas about the world (e.g. Jesus Christ is coming back soon and there is a decent chance he may decide to murder me, a child, with a sword). However, their treatment of me did not typically consist of what I would later understand as abuse in the pathological sense. One exception occurred when I was a teenager. I wasn’t eating. I had been both restricting calories and arbitrarily eliminating common foods from my diet (in some cases using veganism as an excuse). One day my parents noticed that I had not eaten anything aside from a few limes. My father told me I would stunt my growth. I responded, “I hope so,” and he shoved me against a wall, threatening me.
It was corrective. I wasn’t supposed to want a smaller body. My disordered eating and desire to take up less space were both unhealthy manifestations of gender nonconformity. My asceticism and ideas of civil disobedience were both Thoreauvian. I challenged him to hurt me. Masculinity is sadistic; I complied with it by trying to destroy myself.
For most of us, the earliest social interventions in our sexual development are via food and eating. Long before puberty when we develop secondary sexual characteristics, boys receive praise and encouragement to eat food and grow strong, while girls are taught from infancy to conceptualize themselves as romantic accessories subject to patriarchal beauty standards. By age ten, 80 percent of girls have tried dieting. And for children under the age of 15, girls have twice as high a rate of eating disorders as boys. Gender began disciplining my body, however, prior to any of that. The first social intervention in my sexual development that I experienced was intersex genital surgery. It happened for the first time as an infant and multiple more times in early childhood. In either case, society’s production of gender takes an active role in regulating and enforcing the epistemic category of “sex.”