Self-esteem isn’t a gendered issue, and that’s only one of the reasons we love THE ART OF STARVING, the powerhouse YA debut from Sam J. Miller. In the pages of this book, we meet Matt, a gay teen boy who struggles with an eating disorder.
As part of our Mental Health Matters ongoing blog series, we invited Sam to shed light on the subjects covered in THE ART OF STARVING. In this post, you will find the heartbreaking (and empowering) story of why Sam was inspired to write this story, why it’s so personal to him, and the painful ways in which self-harm warps your sense of perception.
Every Handsome Boy Made Me Sick To My Stomach
By Sam J. Miller
Normal boys made me nauseous. I’d see them in school, their bodies strong and beautiful in a way that mine would never be. I’d see them on television. I was sixteen. Everywhere I looked, there they were. And they made my stomach hurt. They made me feel sick, dizzy, soft and flabby and disgusting.
I wanted them, and I wanted to be one of them.
I tried to look like they looked. But in gym class, I got called horrible names. Boys beat me up in the locker room afterwards. Same thing when I went to the weight room after school. So I couldn’t work out, couldn’t do anything to make my body look less disgusting. The only thing I could do was stop eating.
So that’s what I did. And that’s how I got an eating disorder. Nobody wanted me. None of the boys I was crushed out on wanted to kiss me. Just the opposite – most of them were punching me. All that desire I was feeling – all that anger – all that pain – the only thing I could do with it was turn it on myself.
Queer and trans boys and men face a special set of risks, when it comes to body image and self-harm. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), “in one study, gay and bisexual boys reported being significantly more likely to have fasted, vomited or taken laxatives or diet pills to control their weight in the last 30 days. Gay males were 7 times more likely to report binging and 12 times more likely to report purging than heterosexual males.”
YA lit about eating disorders tends to focus on young women, and there’s a good reason for that – evidence shows they overwhelmingly impact girls. But lots of young men suffer from eating disorders that never get diagnosed or reported. Mine wasn’t, not even when I hadn’t eaten in days and I was in so much pain my mom had to take me to the hospital at 2AM.
That’s why I wrote THE ART OF STARVING. I wanted gay and bi boys to know that what they might be struggling with – it’s real. It’s valid. And help is out there. And I wanted young women to know they aren’t the only ones who are damaged by patriarchy’s body image issues.
I overcame my disordered eating when I was eighteen, but the underlying body image issues and internalized toxic masculinity took me much longer to overcome. Well into my twenties, I was making dumb decisions involving sex and love and drugs and alcohol, and surviving solely from sheer fucking luck.
Many people who’ve been brutalized or victimized feel that they have no control over any aspect of their lives – the only control they have is how they control themselves. They can’t hurt the people who are bullying them, so they hurt themselves. Or they turn the violence outwards, and that becomes a source of power: hurting others as you have been hurt. These might feel good, but they’re not sustainable. Sooner or later, the problems they create become much worse than the problem you think they’re solving.
I wanted to tell a story about how the power you get from self-harm is much less powerful or sustainable than the power you get from loving yourself, loving the people around you, and acknowledging that you are amazing and you don’t need to hurt anyone, including yourself. You don’t need to make yourself look a certain way or act a certain way in order to be amazing.
That’s a really hard place to get to, and a lot of adolescents and grown-ups have a hard time with that. Many people never make it.
But that’s the story I had to tell – the journey to the power that comes from self-acceptance. In the end, that’s the only real source of power. Any other power is pretense, a fiction, or an act of destruction.
When I was a teenager, every handsome boy I saw made me sick to my stomach.
And here’s the thing: they still do. Not as bad, and not as often. But sometimes. Because no matter how far I’ve come, no matter how awesome I know I am, now – no matter how happy I am to be gay – I still have to live in this world that floods me with images of beautiful muscular athletic handsome men. I still have to live in a gay community that’s obsessed with only one kind of hotness (white twenty-something jocks, mostly). I’ve never really stopped looking at myself in every mirror or store window I walk past, and going, ahhhh, that’s not great.
They last a lifetime, the psychological scars that get inflicted on us when we’re teenagers. Those hurts? They might keep hurting forever. I didn’t have anybody to tell me how rad I was, back when it mattered. I hope my book can help some magnificent young queer person see how awesome they are, so they don’t spend a decade or two of bad decisions figuring it out.
A darkly funny, moving story of body image, addiction, friendship, and love, Sam J. Miller’s debut novel will resonate with any reader who’s ever craved the power that comes with self-acceptance.