One of my earliest memories was being told I shouldn’t be excited about snack time. This was news to my bright, unmarred concept of identity. What self-respecting kid wasn’t thrilled by the very hint that snack time loomed? Who among our tiny, nomadic clans clawing for a turn on the sole motorized plastic car didn’t swiftly abandon their prize several minutes shy of the lunch bell? But ‘didn’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’ were two very different things, and my first lesson in Freud’s psychic apparatus was swiftly remedied. I was told I “didn’t really need” snack time like the other kids did.
That was in preschool.
While I didn’t understand the sentiment back then (I was always recklessly obstinate when it came to school authority—fuck you, I’m eating string cheese), I was well-versed in the concept by first grade. I was the dreaded monster all those old bedtime stories told you about: a Fat Kid. Parents, teachers, and fellow students have always been kind enough to insinuate or outright declare my weight, which naturally began to inform the picture I had of myself. In some part, video games both reinforced this concept while at the same time helped give me strength in order to combat the very same inescapable label society impresses upon all of us.
Back then, I thought—and to some degree, still do, because self-deprivation can be sinister and lifelong—that Emily Hartwood from Alone in the Dark was worthy of being featured as a playable character because she was conventionally attractive. The reason why she managed to harness her own agency in order to survive a horde of monsters bursting through windows and trap doors, however, was because she kept fighting. This was a defining moment for me. True, I saw myself as worthy of affection insofar as I was deemed physically appealing, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t fight to be acknowledged. My loaded gun would simply have to be my skill with a controller.
All of this didn’t really culminate until high school when I was living off meager rations of Slim Fast and South Beach diet bars. I remember walking home from a musical rehearsal with a friend, laughing about the PlayStation 2 some of our cast members had hooked up on the sly in the boy’s makeshift dressing room. Not everyone was skilled with a controller, but watching otherwise smug boys fumble with the mechanics of Kingdom Hearts II was deeply satisfying to a girl who’d grown up playing games. On our way from school, my friend commented in passing that it looked as though I’d lost weight. I practically glowed, thoughts buzzing with questions I never gave voice to. How could she tell? Had someone else pointed it out to her? Was she being sincere or needlessly cruel? Her remark was inspiring at a time when tenuous adolescent life hinges on identity and affirmation. She recognized how hard I was working. She understood.
Like any teenager hungry for validation, I asked what her diet regime was—whether she had any tips for someone looking to lose more weight. Her answer has stayed with me to this day, rekindled by the darkness that was my sophomore year of college: she ate full meals every other day, only allowing a strict menu of lettuce and celery on the days she couldn’t eat. This, for anyone lucky enough to avoid the toxicity of an eating disorder, is a very dangerous tactic that is supposed to “trick” the body out of starvation mode. A means to obtain the ideal body that the men were jeering over in the Twitch community I watched with near-religious attention. I could be like the perfectly formed women in Final Fantasy XII if I just ate like a rabbit. Didn’t I want to fit in with the other boys who played games? Wasn’t my goal to embody the powerful women who could fight just as well as they maintained a slim physique? Word to the wise: you can’t fight shit if you don’t consume actual food, but I wasn’t thinking rationally.
None of this was as bad as one particular year in my college career. If I’m being honest with myself, it was my lowest point—the darkest time in my life that I look back on and barely recognize the version of myself that existed then. Most kids gain weight when they enter college, suddenly faced with the newfound freedom that comes with spectacularly greasy food and a mandatory meal plan. I gained quite a lot, though I was too familiar with yo-yoing to be concerned. By then, I was gaming less than I had growing up because I was too engrossed in keeping my grades up, nose to my notebook so that I could finally transfer to my dream school. To make up for the lack of games, I watched more Twitch broadcasts of men playing (there were never any women), though the swift sexual aggression and gendered slurs stopped me from ever speaking up in the chat.
It was less fun watching than playing when your source of entertainment is so casually sexist, but I was desperate to stay plugged in somehow. I wanted that sense of community—and if I’m being honest with myself, I’ve always felt slightly removed from it. Between falling in love with the lore that unraveled in Dragon Age: Origins to my long overdue realization that I was gay thanks to Bayonetta‘s unapologetic sexual agency, I felt both validated and deeply ashamed of myself. At that time, I was at my heaviest weight—and when you go to college in a big city, there is never a shortage of strangers eager to inform you of what your self-worth should be. I wasn’t skinny enough for sexual harassment, but I was, apparently, fat enough to be harassed in another way. You can’t log out of a bad situation, can you?
When I did finally transfer to the school of my dreams, it was basically hell. I had no free time to myself for playing or watching games, which, looking back on it now, made escapism all but impossible. I was desperate for some kind of outlet that didn’t include professors and students routinely critiquing my outward appearance when the class was actually about vocal performance—not, you know, body shaming and abuse. That’s when a friend of mine suggested Second Life, an online virtual world relatively simple to get the hang of for someone without any MMO-related experience. You had to interact with other people in real-time? Say what?
The name of this virtual world pretty much sums up the experience I had playing it. In Second Life, the smaller and slimmer my avatar was, the more attention I’d receive. People (in this case, their avatars) would actually initiate verbal contact with the character I created—and it wasn’t to shame me! I was being acknowledged as a human being, which is kind of hilariously pitiful, since my assembled collection of pixels wasn’t human at all. At my lowest, I remember wishing that I, too, could be computer generated like the person-shaped avatar with decisions made by keystrokes. Why couldn’t I assemble my preferred appearance by rezzing a few boxes online? Dizzy from hunger and exhaustion, my perception of the real world wavered like lagging reaction time. I felt caught between realities, indiscernible but for the fact that I was the one who couldn’t fly.
It’s been years since then. I couldn’t say what strength finally awakened in me that managed to kick my ass into taking care of myself after so long, but the dark thoughts are never truly gone. While I did lose the college weight in a far healthier manner than I’d originally handled dieting, that doesn’t mean I’m free from the thoughts that weighed on me then. I’m still triggered by the criteria of absurd proportions characters are animated with just to be featured in any game. The rail thin elves of the Dragon Age franchise are particularly difficult for me to avoid fixating on, just as the exaggerated body types of the Qunari instinctively repel me. Just the thought of another character being forced to look up or around my in-game self is, even now, a deeply unsettling experience. My heart races a little when the misshapen, hulking shoulders of a protagonist like the one in God of War follows my direction by controller.
Even so, I know where my weaknesses lie. I’m currently working on giving my real-world self the permission to inhabit space—even if I have little choice in-game. It’s not fair that my only two playable options are often colossal, rippling muscles and the waif of a character who looks like they can barely run on their spindly legs. What the hell kind of message is that? Why is everyone either spectacularly fit or starved until they look like they’re nearing death? I can’t change any of these outrageous notions about body types by myself, but I can at least take my time in the healing process. I’ve carefully avoided games styled like Second Life for this reason—not because I think they’re inherently “bad,” just that in my hands they can be.
For anyone reading this who has suffered even a fraction of what I have, I encourage you to reach out to someone in your life who you trust. Until now, I’ve only spoken about my eating disorder to one other person, and even that small reprieve helped validate my experiences. You’re worthy of affection and agency no matter what you look like, okay? I’m alive right now because I learned that lesson, as hard as it was. Please practice regular self-care and seek the help you need if you feel alone. I’m proud that you made it this far. Health is a journey, and I sincerely hope you feel comfortable in the little space we’re carving out here.