Beyond the Binary: My Experience as a Gender Nonconforming Person in Recovery

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Guy Standing on Hill

Ash Thoms

Eating disorders are stereotypically viewed as illnesses that plague young, upper-class, white females. This idea is perpetuated by a variety of factors, including the media, and prevents other people with eating disorders from seeking or receiving the help they need and deserve. While the research into males with eating disorders has recently begun to gain traction, many other groups are still being dismissed. One of those groups is gender nonconforming people. 

A person who is gender nonconforming is someone who does not directly fit into the binary system of gender. Whereas the binary system says that a person is either male or female, gender nonconforming people do not follow this idea. These people identify or express their gender outside of the binary system. I am a gender nonconforming person; I identify as genderqueer, use the pronouns they/them/theirs, and outwardly express as androgynous. 

I didn’t ever fit into the binary system of gender but I wasn’t aware that there were alternate options until I was 17. At that time, I had already been diagnosed with an eating disorder for two years. My gender played heavily into the development of my eating disorder. I didn’t have the words to express how uncomfortable I was with being identified as “female,” so I used eating disorder behaviors to manipulate how others perceived me. 

As it turns out, I’m not the only gender nonconforming person with that experience. In a study from the Journal of Adolescent Health, gender nonconforming people reported the highest rates of treatment and diagnosis of eating disorders, as well as the highest rate of purging behaviors—which begs the question: why?

While one group of researchers identified these behaviors as being predominantly focused on trying to change physical features as to correctly express one’s gender, other researchers have considered this to be the effect of social stigma. Gender nonconforming people have historically dealt with, and continue to deal with, social stigma surrounding personal expression and identity. While we are making progress towards a more inclusive world, one in which gender nonconforming people are all allowed to exist as themselves, stigma is continuing to be perpetuated by the increasing disregard for the rights of gender nonconforming people. 

This year alone, federal protections for gender nonconforming students have been revoked, and it has been suggested that gender nonconforming people be banned from the military. While these actions may not seem to touch all gender nonconforming people directly, they do send a message that being gender nonconforming is not accepted or valid. These actions have the effect of potentially making gender nonconforming people want to change who they are to align with society’s concept of who they should be. 

For me, that meant my eating disorder got louder. Every day became more of an internal struggle as I continued to realize that me and other gender nonconforming people were not being seen as people. I wanted to change who I was so that I didn’t have to live through the experience of being continually socially stigmatized. I have watched some of my gender nonconforming friends have very similar responses to our dehumanization, and fall into eating disorder behaviors. 

After falling into these behaviors, gender nonconforming people have a much more challenging time receiving treatment for eating disorders. When I was last in a residential treatment center, it was suggested that my gender was invalid. That made me spend more time trying to convince my providers that my gender is a true experience for me, than trying to address the underlying causes of my eating disorder. 

I also experienced body dissatisfaction in a way that was different than those in the treatment center who were cisgender, which was challenging for me and my providers. Add to this mix having to constantly correct other clients and providers on their use of pronouns, and going into any form of treatment as a gender nonconforming person becomes exceptionally challenging. 

Gratefully, I now have gender-aware providers and a strong support system which helped me to continue in sustained recovery throughout this year. As the rights of gender nonconforming people continue to be under fire, it is important to recognize how this impacts our mental health and well-being. All gender nonconforming people deserve to be treated as human beings, and deserve the mental health treatment afforded to other groups of people.

While we may not be there yet in terms of treatment for and of gender nonconforming people, it is necessary to continue working towards a future in which we are seen as equal. 

Ash is a college student studying business and English. They are an advocate for mental health and gender nonconforming people, working to decrease stigma through writing.