My eating disorder prevented me from being the trans woman I am

It was a way of reflecting the anguish in my mind by making my body mirror my mental state.

My eating disorder prevented me from being the trans woman I am
Lily standing in a doorway, wearing a black leather jacket, with her brown hair tied back and wearing a cross necklace
By eating, the person I wanted to be was no longer clouded (Picture: Lily Thomson)

Walking through the brisk January wind, I felt completely out of place in my leopard print coat and red lipstick, amongst the throngs of immaculately groomed men and well-polished women.

I’d just arrived in Riga, Latvia – a planned stop on my gap year abroad before university – when I became suddenly, painfully, conscious that I was a boy in make-up all alone in a country not known for its tolerance of LGBT+ people. 

Not only that, but my body was in a state of revolt. Having spent months severely limiting the amount  of food I consumed, I would feel sick when I tried to eat something an even sicker if I ate nothing at all. 

I had a breakdown in a Latvian supermarket, trying to find Weetabix, one of the only foods I felt comfortable eating at the time. 

That is when I knew things needed to change. 

I am a trans woman and I always felt different as a child – like I was constantly dropping hints, leaving clues and trails about the girl inside, hoping someone would put them all together and confront me with my real nature.

But gender dysphoria is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it.

You feel like you are holding the wrong controller in a video game. It becomes hard to make connections that are real and substantial. 

Lilywith long brown hair, blowing in the wind, standing in front of hills - she is looking thin
If I couldn’t be truly open with myself, how could I be close to someone else? (Picture: Lily Thomson)

I’m 19 now, but my teen years have been a tale of two halves. The first consisted of me being a badly behaved kid – not massively so, but a nuisance with a bit of cheek. 

The second half was defined by a quiet sense of isolation. I knuckled down and did well with my exams but had very few friendships. 

Having not yet come out as trans, I felt like my school days were spent constantly in secrecy. 

If I couldn’t be truly open with myself, how could I be close to someone else? 

After school, I started working nightshifts in a backpacker’s hostel. My life was topsy turvy: my days were nights, and nights were my days. 

That was when I first became rigid around what I ate. 

Up until that point, food had been a positive, comforting part in my life. Many of my earliest memories involve food. 

Fish suppers while curled up on the couch, hot chocolate and teacakes every Wednesday after school with my gran. The smell of freshly baked bread on a crisp winter morning.

Lily laying on a sofa, with a blanket in to of her - her ginger cat is on top of the blanket, on her body, and she is stroking him
Gender dysphoria is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it (Picture: Lily Thomson)

Yet then, while the hostel remained silent through the night, I spent my time watching food shows. I started looking at menus in restaurants I was never going to visit, seeing how many calories were in the meals and imagining what the food would taste like. 

It became all-consuming: my focus, my hobby, my secret obsession. It’s almost like a first love, a first crush. 

Data from Current Opinion in Psychiatry states that more than 8% of trans women and 10% of trans men in the USA will suffer from an eating disorder at some point, much higher than the national average (according to NICE) of 4.6%. 

I don’t exactly know when anorexia became a problem for me; why this illness attached itself to me, or why I wanted it. Because that is the strange thing when you are anorexic – you want it more than anything. 

You experience a strange feeling of pride in the fact that you are restricting food. You like that you look scarily thin – sick, even. 

For me, it was a way of reflecting the anguish in my mind by making my body mirror my mental state. 

BEAT

If you suspect you, a family member or friend has an eating disorder, contact Beat on 0808 801 0677 or at [email protected], for information and advice on the best way to get appropriate treatment

A selfie of Lily holding a cup of coffee, with a red nose from the cold
That is the crux of anorexia – nobody can force you to recover (Picture: Lily Thomson)

After a few months of severely restricting my diet, people started asking me if I had lost weight, particularly family members I hadn’t seen in a while. ‘Maybe, I don’t know,’ I’d shrug, but inside I would be glowing. 

It felt like an achievement, like I had won something. 

Anorexia is a game you play with yourself. How much weight can you lose? How little food can you get away with eating? 

By the time my trip to Riga rolled around the following winter, I was severely underweight. Alone, I’d push myself to the extreme –  wouldn’t even chew gum anymore out of fear of the calories. 

This worried me so, a couple of days after I returned, I spoke up about what I was going through. ‘Um, I think I feel weird around food,’ I told my parents. 

My family had already noticed my weight loss and strange eating patterns, but when they’d asked me, I’d always denied it was a problem. 

Lily standing in front of a Audrey Hepburn poster, wearing a blazer, crop top and skirt - she is looking thin
At my assessment, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa (Picture: Lily Thomson)

I think that is the crux of anorexia: nobody can force you to recover. You have to recognise the damage it is doing yourself before you can face it. 

The next morning, I made a GP appointment where I talked through my food intake, was weighed, and had bloods taken. I had to go to the hospital for an ECG and was given an urgent referral to my local eating disorder services. 

At my assessment, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and given CBT therapy.

Before, I’d felt lost at sea, with both my illness and my gender; now the diagnosis had brought a sense of relief. I felt validated for my illness, which made me feel able to recover and like I had ‘permission’ to eat. 

That’s not to say it was easy. It was very hard at first. It still is.

Feeding my body and brain allowed me each day to see more clearly what I had been hiding from; that anorexia had been acting as a self-imposed barrier stopping me from confronting my gender identity head on.

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By eating, the person I wanted to be was no longer clouded. I could clearly see my identity and was able to finally come out as trans and start living as a woman, which has played a positive role in my recovery ever since.

It has taken many months, but with help from some prescribed medication for low mood and obsessional thoughts, I have now reached a healthy weight

Anorexia is complicated. It is a tree with many branches that need to be cut down in order to recover. For me, it is entwined with issues of self-esteem and confusion around gender. 

I am still obsessed with food, and I think I always will be, but I have found ways to manage my disorder. I don’t count calories nor do I weigh myself.

So though I am still living with the remnants of the illness – the isolation, the rigidness – I am managing to live with anorexia and maintain a healthy weight and a regular food intake. 

Right now, I am about to eat lunch and I’m not even scared. I wouldn’t have thought that possible a year ago. 

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