By: Priscilla María
Content Warning: Child Sexual Abuse, Anorexia
During a time period in my life, each day revolved around eating rituals, caloric obsessions and mandatory exercise. A therapist pointed out that my binge-and-restrict cycle of living extended beyond my eating and exercise patterns. For instance, my rigid categorizations of foods as “good” or “bad” mirrored my relationships with people. My black-and-white thinking caused me to view others as either with me or against me. Overall, my eating disorder prevented any area of gray in my life.
My eating disorder demanded all of my attention and left no room for romance. For instance, I suffered from amenorrhea, or an abnormal loss of menstruation common among people with anorexia, for sixteen months. During this time, I had zero libido and barely enough energy to walk let alone be sexually active. Overall, anorexia is defined by deprivation and I deprived myself into a state of numbness. In fact, I entered law school just months after completing an intense rehabilitation program for bulimia and anorexia and without having regained my period. This experience was incredibly difficult and I promised my family I would never repeat the behaviors that landed me at a treatment center. I kept my promise. As is common with people recovering from anorexia, however, my eating disorder persisted but evolved into binge eating disorder.
My life has looked very disordered. At times I was a reserved student attending Bible study and eating a strict diet. At other times, I was partying in mansions with your favorite rappers and privately binging until I became nauseous. Undoubtedly, my degree of compulsivity and the sexual interactions I had with men and women coincided with episodes of binging and restriction. Although food seems to be the controlling center of my life, eating disorders have nothing to do with food.
Eating disorders are maladaptive coping mechanisms. As a survivor of extensive abuse and life-altering traumas, I channeled my intense feelings of powerlessness into my eating disorder. By manipulating my caloric intake and achieving my desired weights, I felt a false sense of control over my life. This addictive behavior wrecked havoc on my body in the form of osteopenia, hair loss, amenorrhea, orthostatic hypotension, brittle nails, arrhythmia and moodiness. While in rehab, I had to wear a heart monitor, stop all exercise, be weighed daily, eat whatever was placed in front of me, keep a supervised food journal and complete invasive and uncomfortable therapy sessions on a daily basis. I was back to feeling completely powerless over my life.
I am thankful for my immediate family's intervention and support of my recovery. The reality is, however, my eating disorder was preventable. Eating disorders, sex, and the interconnectedness of both subjects remain very taboo in the Latinx community. This is unjust to our community members because any behavior fueled by emotional instability or underlying mental illness and trauma is destined for tragedy. For instance, I met several risk factors for developing an eating disorder including being the survivor of child sexual abuse (CSA). In fact, the National Eating Disorder Association estimates that 30% of those coping with an eating disorder are survivors of CSA. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 1 in 3 Latinas and 1 in 4 Latinos reported experiencing sexual violence.
The shame that typically accompanies CSA places a survivor at a heightened risk of developing an unhealthy body image. In fact, this shame may manifest into self-harming activities such as the very symptoms of an eating disorder: binge eating, purging and starvation. Some scholars argue that these symptoms are efforts by the survivor to destroy the body they associate with sexual trauma. Unfortunately, very little research exists about the prevalence of eating disorders among Latinx. Instead, the focus of eating disorder research is on affluent and white populations. Nonetheless, it is reported that Latinx women experience higher rates of binge eating, dieting, and laxative use than whites, Black people and Asian women.
Recently, I confronted several family members about the sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of my grandfather. In sum, I learned my perpetrator was a serial predator that abused multiple female members of my family. Additionally, I learned that my aunts were directly complicit in his sexual abuse and chose not to protect me. Instead, they pushed their felonious father into my family's apartment after Child Protective Services removed him from my aunt's home for molesting her daughter. In other words, the defining trauma of my life should have been easily prevented. As a direct consequence of my molestation, I developed many unhealthy behaviors such as an eating disorder that could have killed me.
It is necessary to teach our community to actively use their voices whether it is to advocate for their mental health care, defend a loved one from abuse, or to define boundaries with others. I am not the only sexual abuse survivor in my family or the only one with an eating disorder. Yet, I spent decades feeling alone in my suffering when really I was one of many. Overall, there is a direct correlation between sexuality and eating disorders. We must normalize speaking about currently taboo topics of sex and mental health because it could be a matter of life or death for those suffering in silence.
Priscilla is a proud Nicaragüense and Ecuatoriana. She earned her B.A. in both Africana Studies and Sociology at Johns Hopkins University and her Juris Doctor from UC Irvine School of Law. She believes in the healing power of storytelling and hopes to bring mutual healing through shared testimonies.