I was nineteen, inpatient for my eating disorder, underweight, depressed, and in love with the novelty of big cities. Before inpatient, my parents had sent me off to university with a stern warning: that my values would be “challenged” by a big city.
They were right. And oh how I embraced those challenges. Those heartbreaking, liberating challenges.
Western treatment for eating disorders is as good as it can be. That I believe. I was usually treated with respect. But there really is no good way to do eating disorder treatment. It’s painful. Excruciating. They take away the eating disorder, your very life raft, and then what have you left, but a weight-restored, hollow version of your former self?
And God I wish it weren’t so heteronormative.
For my whole life, I wanted to be beautiful.
And for my whole life, I had admired and appreciated the beauty of other women. Long before I ever knew I was queer.
As a young inpatient, hurting and afraid, I formed deep bonds with the girls and women in treatment with me. And oh, weren’t we beautiful?
I sketched constantly in college. And now, taking medical leave from my sophomore year, I sketched endlessly in that locked-down building, too. With whatever medium I could find: sketchbooks, canvases, notebook paper; pencils, charcoal, acrylics, pen.
They tried to make our living area as comfortable and beautiful as possible. But something was amiss—artwork behind plastic instead of glass. Vinyl flowers in plastic vases, too. Windows we couldn’t open.
We had a body image class, in which we were warned of the dangers of western beauty standards. It was true that many, maybe even most, images of women in popular media were photoshopped. It was true that, even before their photos were digitally manipulated, these models were held to near-impossible standards of thinness. It was even true that I had fallen into the trap of believing that beauty equated thinness. I could get behind that. Yet these slight women were beautiful. No question.
I couldn’t argue with these lessons. But I was confused when they told me not to look at beauty magazines.
What, exactly, was meant by “Compare and despair”? What was so wrong about looking at other women?
Perhaps I compared plenty to my detriment. But I also loved the female form. I believe, now, that I have always loved women.
I sketched my peers. I was even half good. Looking back now, I remember their faces and figures so clearly.
They said we were beautiful after we gained weight. And we were. But I like to think, perhaps, we were beautiful all along, even when too thin—simply because we were women, simply because we had value. We weren’t just beautiful after; couldn’t we be beautiful always?
“Don’t read beauty magazines,” they pounded. “Compare and despair!”
I agreed. I internalized what they said.
But, after I was discharged, I found myself drawn to Vogue. Those women, those textured fabrics, those slim waistlines, those eyes. Were they not beautiful?
They were beautiful.
In California, I relapsed. I became “the sick girl,” chronically underweight, with intermittent periods of unsightly emaciation. Yet oh, how I loved those beauty magazines.
I subscribed to Vogue.
I poured over each issue, longing to be beautiful, too. Could I be beautiful? I had the body, the height, the measurements of a runway model. Perhaps I could model.
But I was filled with guilt as I admired those glossy pages. That’s your eating disorder, they told me.
But was it?
Did I want to be them? Or did I simply want to be with them?
At twenty-one, I found myself in intensive outpatient for eating disorder treatment at my university.
(It was a “rough” program, a child psychiatrist told me years later, at the nonprofit where we both worked. She didn’t want to slander her peers, but her intonation, her carefully-chosen words, were clear. I relished being a peer, rather than a patient. Ha! I thought. I was justified in dropping out! I was cautious about self disclosure, but my boss had “outed” me one day as we sat with her and her teenaged son in a five-star restaurant, after a long day at an international psychiatry conference. I remember how good the wine was. I remember how I did not correct my boss when he said “panic disorder,” rather than “PTSD.”)
In intensive outpatient (IOP, or “I-HOP,” where we could never eat, was the running joke) I found Steph, or perhaps she found me. Steph was stunning, with the body of a figure skater. Big eyes—and even bigger during the times when she struggled to keep up her weight.
I loved her eyes. I loved her petite, toned, athletic build. She was studying ballet. She had a strength I admired—emotional and physical resilience both.
I was twenty-one, old enough to buy liquor. She, two years younger, used to wait outside the grocery store in the California sunshine, in her miniskirt and sequined halter top, or in skinny jeans and a flowing blouse. Her hair was long. Her eyes were brown.
We fell in love over tequila and rum. We took shots. We danced.
We weren’t gay; we were just drunk, we agreed. It didn’t count.
But when we began to kiss sober, I think we realized that we weren’t exactly straight.
She told me about the men who had hurt her. We wondered if it was wrong, what we were doing—soft kisses, exploring one another’s bodies.
(During this time, my boyfriend was hurting me badly each night we spent together. I didn’t yet know the word “sadist,” and I didn’t yet know that sex was not supposed to be painful, dangerous, or degrading. I knew nothing of consent, and I didn’t know that it was possible to be “r*ped” [I still can’t use that word] within the context of a relationship. During that first romantic relationship with a man, I was filled with intense love—and overwhelming fear of what he might do to me next.)
You know something I loved about our nights together? I loved how we sat on her bedroom carpet talking about absolutely everything—music, my ballroom and her ballet, cat memes, sex, finals—with our legs stretched out before us. I studied how different our legs were—hers so muscular, and mine so long. So different from each other and yet, such a match. I loved the way our legs looked next to each other.
Perhaps it was wrong for us to drop out of IOP together. But you can’t tell me it was wrong for us to find beauty in one another.
My friendship with Steph was both joyful and heart-wrenching, as mutually devoted to our eating disorders as we were back then. But our love—that was real.
I studied Latin in Portland, Oregon my last semester, under a brilliant professor who loved classic rock—leaving Steph behind and disavowing my California heritage. I still regret the manner in which I left her. There I became obsessed with figure drawing. I poured over the art shelves at the legendary Powell’s Books just down the street from my university and my dream internship at an independent, literary publisher whose books won international awards.
I hid the books. The figures were all nudes. I couldn’t let my family—still seeped in the homophobic religion of my youth—know that I found beauty in studying the proportions and angles and curves of the undressed female body.
I’m not sure what ever happened to those sketches.
In New York, I was determined to leave my eating disorder behind me. I would be seen as strong. I was never going to be that sick girl ever, ever again. It was time to be a professional. It was time to be intimidating in a man’s industry. I wore pencil dresses and blazers and stood, finally, at my full height, shedding my “tall girl’s slouch” and the traumas I wore in my posture. I was proud to look a man in the eye, as tall as any of them.
By now I knew I was queer. And, although I often still longed for that slight model’s figure I once possessed, I was determined to appear strong and athletic like the editors who were now my role models. And my role models were all female editors, I should note. They took me under their wings. They taught me. They believed in my potential.
And then I discovered Broadway.
New York is a city for dreamers. They can be found everywhere. I found them on Broadway.
It was the women’s numbers I put on repeat on my playlist. It was the women whose movies I watched on YouTube.
And now I had a new desire: to look like a broadway star. A full and strong body.
Singing and dancing with all their hearts and strength, those women mesmerized me.
I ran marathons. I wanted to be strong, like them.
One night, I hurt myself badly outside late at night, with a pocketknife I carried for protection, drunk and deep in flashbacks, while one of my best friends was resting in my Queens apartment. We had begged to be roommates in inpatient where I sketched her so often, and when we moved to the residential unit, our wish was granted. She confided in me then that she was bisexual. I confided in her what I could not tell my family: that I supported gay marriage.
That had been more than a decade ago.
“My God,” she said as we walked my dog the next morning. The sidewalk was splattered in red. “KC, your blood is everywhere.”
She asked if I needed stitches. I lied that I did not. I just needed to quit drinking, I cried. I couldn’t bear the memories for one more second. The assaults that had shattered my confidence and dignity, events that I never spoke of.
We went to the Frick Collection on the Upper Eastside. She went inside ahead of me, while I dutifully called my therapist from the sidewalk as my friend had asked me to.
Inside the stunning mansion, Flaming June was on tour, its first time outside of Europe. We were awe-struck, the both of us.
My leg was still throbbing from the previous night. The butterfly bandages were inadequate.
“Do you think it’s a masterpiece?” She asked me.
I thought hard. I studied the brushstrokes.
“I’m not sure,” I answered.
We discussed. We decided that, perhaps it was not the artist’s finest painting. Perhaps he had simply captured, with profound skill and emotion, the beauty of a girl dreaming in the sunshine. Perhaps it was as simple and profound as that.
We lingered at Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid. It seemed that real light was coming from the painting. The painting contained a full story, although it was a mystery. Just what was written in that letter? What did the mistress say to her maid? Did she read it alone, or did she need her confidante close by? Here was a masterpiece, we decided, although neither of us had an art education. But we were true to what we found beautiful, that day in the museum. We didn’t have to have a knowledge of art history to relate to what we saw.
In the gift shop, she bought me a journal to help me heal: Vermeer’s masterpiece on the cover. She bought me a hand mirror with Flaming June on the back. That was years ago. I treasure both still today. Prints of both those portraits hang on the wall above my bed.
She pressed me to write in my new journal, to wander the galleries when I needed to feel safe.
I have kept both those promises.
On that day, she gave me more than a hand mirror and journal for me to record my thoughts: She gifted me an entire museum full of glittering galleries, with paintings playing with light and color in ways that their replications can never capture. She gifted me a haven.
Today, I read Vogue without guilt. I paint women with oils and acrylics. I can be strong and healthy, and I can love women at the same time. Desire does not have to equate envy.