Food scarcity, sexuality, and disordered eating with Sequoia

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

Sequoia is objectively cool.

I would tell you why, but I don’t need to. Here’s a picture instead.

Her story starts like that of many other disordered eaters. As a pre-teen, she began to mimic the behavior of her two older sisters. They counted calories, so she counted calories. They went on runs, so she joined them. She knew on some level that the end goal was to be thin, but Sequoia just wanted to be like them.

I would say that puberty hit her hard, but I think it hit her as expected. As expected, Sequoia gained weight. Her childhood nickname of “beanpole” no longer fit. She would starve all day and eat dinner with her parents at night. Sometimes social eating is simply a way of saying, “I’m okay. Nothing to worry about here.”

Most typically developing women will experience weight gain in puberty. A woman in her thirties - hell, a woman in her fifties - scarcely feels equipped to deal with a changing body without running for Weight Watchers or Whole 30. How could a pre-teen do any better?

Around the same time as the onset of puberty, Sequoia’s parents - both of whom struggled with alcoholism - decided to get a divorce. Her mom received custody, but wasn’t prepared to parent. From 13 onward, Sequoia raised herself.

Eating disorders are more common in people who have experienced food scarcity. For some people, scarcity looks like a diet. For others, it looks like living in food desert or frequenting the food bank. Some people - Sequoia, for example - experience both.

Sequoia partied and popped pills throughout high school. When she was high, food was uninteresting, even nausea-inducing. It became quite easy not to eat. Even when she wanted it, food was not reliably available. If she didn’t want what the food bank had to offer, she just wouldn’t eat. She floated between living in hotels or with family friends. Sequoia shrank, and didn’t - or couldn’t - do much to stop it.

I notice that we move on rapidly from this period of her life. I ask Sequoia if we can spend a bit more time on food insecurity, on homelessness - on the trauma that was growing up without dependable food, shelter, or parenting. “Well, I don’t necessarily want to cry in front of you,” she admits. “You’re pretty much a stranger.”

I have to hand her that. She’s the friend of a friend. We move on.

Sequoia’s mom disappeared just before she was set to begin community college, and Sequoia was again without a home. She moved in with a boyfriend’s family. Sequoia reflects that having a roof over her head and reliable access to food was of limited importance to her eating disorder. She still wasn’t calm. She still didn’t feel safe. And so: she still didn’t eat.

By the time she began college, anorexia had wreaked havoc on her body. Her weight had plummeted, her hair thinned, her skin was perpetually broken out, and she was tired all the time. A nutritionist worriedly told her that she had to gain weight.

“I was going to class, working two jobs, and the nutritionist was expensive,” she explained. “I wasn’t into it. I didn’t go back. I’m really good at just pushing things away.”

Sequoia would one day recover, but it wouldn’t be by medical intervention.

I asked her what worked instead.

Sequoia sped through college, receiving enough scholarships to travel afterwards. She and a friend spent two months backpacking and staying with friends in China, Thailand, and Indonesia. For the first time in her life, she relaxed. Fully. She ate a lot of rice, gained a lot of weight. Her new body felt good. She looked good. She accepted a larger and more powerful body.

That was four years ago.

From my perspective, Sequoia seems more recovered than many people with histories of restrictive eating disorders. The fact that she allowed her body to return to and remain at a healthier size is impressive. I know many people who are out of the “danger zone” of disordered eating - which is only to say that they wouldn’t be hospitalized - but who artificially suppress their weight. They always want a little more food than they take. Prior to these last few months, that’s what “recovery” looked like for me, too.

About two years ago, Sequoia started her first-ever same-sex relationship. I asked if dating a woman has made it easier to recover; after all, I’d found this to be true in my own relationship. For Sequoia, this isn’t the case. Both she and her partner have “food issues.” When their less-recovered days overlap, the effect is magnified.

Sequoia’s partner is more traditionally masculine than she is. She has what she likes to call “big dyke energy.” Her partner’s desire to maintain this self-image makes weight gain even scarier. After all, when women gain weight, they usually gain it like women. They become curvier, softer, more conventionally feminine. For Sequoia’s partner, gaining weight seems to push her farther from that masculine gender role with which she identifies.

This coming year, both Sequoia and her partner want to “get healthy.” Her partner works in the music industry and Sequoia as a bartender, and she notes that the associated lifestyle of drinking and drunk eating and staying out late “just isn’t cute anymore.” The trick is to find a balance: she knows that counting and tracking food would likely trigger her eating disorder. She can’t afford to imitate the lifestyles of her hyper-fit female friends. She rejects invitations to attend Orange Theory and fends off offerings of diet food. “I just want to eat better because I’ll feel better,” she says. Is that so hard?

Unfortunately, it can be. But Sequoia has navigated the complexity with grace. I ask her what advice she’d give to a fellow disordered eater, someone who must accept weight gain on the path to getting well. (You know, like me.)

“Keep busy,” She says. “If you don’t have enough to do, you’ll be even more hyper-focused on your body.”

“Stay off Instagram,” she says. “It’s just one massive advertisement for a body you’ll never have.”

“Focus on the good things,” she says. “I’m up a couple sizes, but I’m amazed at what’s happening to my body. My butt is back, and it’s awesome.”

Awesome indeed.

I ask Sequoia the question I ask everyone: “What’s next?” Most people in recovery have a sense of what it would look like to “level up” - to be even more recovered than they are right now.

The day of our interview, Sequoia had to cancel. Days later, she explains that she was in the midst of a manic episode. In part, that’s what's next. She’ll be receiving treatment for her bipolar in January for the first time in her life.

I’m reminded of the twelve-step advice to address your addictions in the order they’re killing you. For me, that meant recovery from alcoholism had to come before recovery from disordered eating. Sequoia could only pursue treatment for bipolar when her weight had stabilized.

Sequoia also tells me that she wants to start working out - hard. Maybe kickboxing. “I have a lot of pent up anger,” she says. “I want to exert more energy.”

I nod. I love this idea. Surveying what little I know of Sequoia’s growing up years, I can see why she might be angry. People in recovery are often blessed with renewed energy and a sneaking suspicion of how best to direct it. Sequoia is ready to hit things, and she knows it.

What if Sequoia’s 12-year-old self could hear this message? Indeed, what if this message were readily available for all women battling the necessity - the normalcy - of a changing body? What if they were told that unconditional body acceptance, gentle nutrition, and dietary flexibility were prerequisites to a fulfilling future?

I often think about what I’ll tell my future daughters in puberty. Yes, it can be scary. Yes, it can feel out of control. But in Sequoia's words, it’s also "amazing" - a word defined by Merriam Webster as “causing astonishment, great wonder, or surprise.”

If it's amazing, you don't have to understand it. You're allowed to be surprised, even taken aback. But acceptance is paramount. Any attempts to control, suppress, or manipulate your body will backfire, usually in the form of food obsession and fatigue. So enjoy the ride; you are gaining the strength to be more fully, powerfully, and unapologetically human.