The Effect My Eating Disorder Had On My Sexuality

Illustration by Nicole Collete-Leon

Growing up I was always very secure with my sexuality and how I presented myself to the world. I was 16 when I had my first boyfriend; I was confident within myself and this felt very apparent within our sexual relationship. Although at this time I was suffering with many eating disorder tendencies I was able to manage them and when I started feeling more overwhelmed by the feelings and urges, I was able to seemingly ‘recover’ from them, meaning I would quickly feel better and happy within myself again. This is one of the factors that enable eating disorders to go on so long, unnoticed and untreated.

When I was 18 I started coming to terms with being sexually assaulted and this is when my eating disorder was able to start playing a larger factor in my life. The first indication that it was affecting my sexuality was when I started wearing longer skirts or dresses and opted for more loose fitting outfits. I did this because I did not want to attract any attention for my body, but I was also ashamed of it. I had always loved my legs and used to not mind others’ attention, if it wasn’t too forceful, as I felt I looked good, so what was the harm?

My once pretty consistent love and sex life took a two year hiatus as the thought of anyone even touching me seemed repulsive. I could not understand why I was feeling like this. Even though looking back now it all makes sense, at the time I could not understand how or why my sexuality had suddenly and completely changed.

For many people who have experienced sexual abuse it is common for them to develop eating disorders as a way of coping with the trauma. Many sexual abuse survivors also often use their weight as a safety blanket, some feeling safer in a smaller body or feel protected in a larger one.

Within those two years I did meet some people that I genuinely liked, however I was quick to cut off any form of physical relationship as I knew that was something I could not handle, yet I still did not understand why. I was embarrassed to admit that I was in a pit of hating myself, something that I tried so hard to hide. Of course this secrecy and front I put on was just my eating disorders way of staying hidden and keeping its power over me.

As eating disorders most commonly, involve body image issues those who experience them tend to have a lower sex drive. Many who go through a reduced sex drive due to their eating disorder tend to think that their experience is unique and that there is something wrong with them. This is not true.

At the start of 2019 I moved to New York to study acting. By now my eating disorder was controlling almost every part of my life. However living with course mates and in a country where I didn’t know anyone gave both my eating disorder and my sexuality a new found freedom. My eating disorder decided it was finally going to become all consuming of me, whilst I simultaneously decided I was finally ready to start exploring my sexuality again. Both of these things were able to feed each other: I viewed sex as purely exercise and I could only be sexual if I hadn’t eaten ‘bad’ foods or if I looked or felt ‘skinny’.

Research shows that 50-75% of women who have an eating disorder also have depressive disorder; low sex drive can also be a symptom of depression. In the US half of the people who experience binge eating disorder have also experienced depression, and people who suffer with both depression and anorexia are 50 times more likely to commit suicide.

Several months later I started to come to terms with the fact that I had an eating disorder, after having months of therapy. I began educating myself by reading books, researching online and following social media pages that provide educational resources surrounding eating disorders. So many parts of my life started to make sense; I finally understood why I would do things that other people didn’t seem to do, and I felt relieved that I could change if I wanted to. My brain finally started to clear.

Once I had started my journey through recovery many parts of my life were feeling easier. I was still going through a lot of emotional confusion, as finally accepting that I had an eating disorder was an exceptionally hard thing to do - as it still is - but things were getting better.

Eventually, I made the decision that I would pursue an actor friend who I had had a romantic interest in for quite some time. After spending the day together we decided I would stay at his. I didn’t have any pyjamas so I slept in my knickers and a big top that I had borrowed from him and I honestly felt great; I was starting to feel like me again. In the night he very innocently stroked my side but I could not handle it. I stayed up all night fighting with myself about why I couldn’t be present in this one small moment with the guy I liked. The week following I attempted to scratch off all of the skin that had been touched whilst my eating disorder was telling me that, of course, he thought I was disgusting and that I would never be deserving of someone being sexually interested in me.

Some women who have eating disorders have experienced unwillingness towards sexual activity because of barriers, with regards to intimacy, that their eating disorder has put up.

After months of fighting for recovery I finally, slowly, started to feel my sexuality come back. I started to feel sexually free again and wanted to explore that side of me, just like I had done when I was 16.

Written by Esme Michaela