How My Dad's Toxic Masculinity Gave Me an Eating Disorder

"Handsome Man," he'd call himself. That's what being a man meant to him—looking good.

by Penny Bringham
Nov 7 2017, 10:30pm


This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.

I was my "ideal weight" at my senior year graduation dinner: a six-foot, 110-pound mess of gangly limbs and anemia. I was hungry and faint all the time; deliriously anorexic. I loved it.

But in my size six dress I was still wholly convinced that I still needed to wear Spanx. Even after two and a half hours of cardio that day, and every other day. The night ultimately took a turn after I downed my sixth glass of Prosecco and my friends found me sprawled out on the bathroom floor, trawling around in an alcohol-infused delirium. I'd begun to feel my ankles quake and my vision fade, so I had fled there for some privacy. I gave an excuse, collected myself, then went to receive my award.

At 18, the eating disorder wasn't a new fixture to my personality. I had began to constrict my portions because I equated thinness with greatness. I truly believed that regardless of the fainting spells and perpetual hunger pains, there was something "higher" to my disorder. That being lean was to exist as a floating, emotionless entity. And I didn't want to feel emotions, especially not frustration or anxiety. I only wanted to be successful. My inspiration came from the person I looked up to the most: my dad.

He has always been an athletic man, dabbling in amateur basketball and swimming. He's always had his looks, too; when he married my mom he stood at a tanned six-foot three inches. In their wedding photos his white smile is brighter than her lace, and her appearance was always secondary to his. He liked being the most handsome man in the room, and making people aware of it. "Handsome Man," he'd call himself. That's what being a man meant to him—looking good.

One of my earliest memories of us is my father waking me up with a hemp juice. I couldn't have been older than nine but I can still taste the coarse, pasty concoction. "Drink it," he said to me, sternly, with a smile. I did what I was told, skulled the gray swamp water. "It'll make you strong," he assured me. Then we went on our routine three-mile run. He always ran ahead, panting heavily, but my spindly legs kept up. Back home, he'd greet my mom with, "Marie, next time you should definitely join us. We burned 1,000 calories... Hemp juice? You could use it."

You could use it.

My father exercised until exhaustion, crash dieted, lived solely on green juices, drank himself into oblivion, disciplined his children with flurries of rage, and chain smoked to quiet his cravings for food. He wanted to look like someone who does CrossFit every weekend, but beneath the taut muscles and tanned skin was a tumultuous mess of charred lungs, fat liver, and a barren stomach—a relentless clash of alcohol and nutrition.

My dad's dad, my grandfather, was a stoic man. The Red Army pushed him from Latvia to Australia during World War II, so he made a life for himself building houses. He constructed the family home my dad grew up in but he was a cold, unflinching father. He didn't say much, which made my father—a sensitive individual—feel abandoned. But although my grandfather never offered physical or emotional warmth, he did offer a type of embrace through the thick, fortified walls he built. His masculinity was visible in the bare bricks and his football-sized muscles. I believe this triggered something in my dad.

My father's job chained him to work emails and Skype calls. He was a nerd, an IT guru, so striving for a certain type of maleness couldn't come from his profession. His athletic body depleting behind a desk was his reasoning for getting into "The Zone." The Zone is a diet of cold-pressed vegetable juices. And nothing else. For every meal of the week. Just. Juices. "When I'm in The Zone," he told me as he pulled out his waist-band to demonstrate his leanness, "I can shed half a pound a day." He gave up salt and went blind for eight hours, forcing my mom to take him to hospital.

To him, The Zone is about going right up to the lip of weight loss limits and laughing as you pass it. He wanted to be the master of his body, but then he drank until he couldn't feel it anymore. Inevitably, this skewed sense of masculinity rubbed off on the women in his life. My sister, mother, and I all developed our own eating disorders and alcohol issues. Joe, my sister, jumped on the scales when she was nine and beat anorexia just last year at age 22. She has battled her own alcohol-infused demons.

One day, when I was ten, my dad took us to shoot hoops at the local basketball court. He brought along a six-pack of Tiger Beer and a bottle of Absolut Vodka too. Once there, he dribbled the ball by himself, drunk and sweaty. We were sitting on the sidelines watching him miss shot after shot, when my sister called out, "Moist Man!" Swaying, he wandered over and poured all his beer over her 11-year-old head. He then fished a bottle of homemade green juice from his backpack and left us in courtyard, stranded and hot. "I'll be back with cigarettes," he shouted back at us. I watched him stumble away while my sister, with her clothes dripping beer, held my hand tightly.

My mother wasn't immune to the pull of his obsession, either. By the time I was seven, she'd had liposuction, cut out carbs, and been through numerous failed memberships to fitness clubs. She was 40 years old and in a moderate weight range, but this wasn't enough for my father. So they worked out together and dieted. After they exercised they would sit on opposite ends of the dining table, silently drinking their respective liquids.

Despite the routines, mom's weight didn't move. She loved chocolate bars and had a stash in her underwear drawer. She also had a liver disorder which meant trying to lose extra weight was difficult. We could always count on my dad for not letting her stay in the "stupor" though. He loved making offhand comments about her weight: "Marie," he'd say, wearing Nike exercise shirts that smelled of last night's alcohol binge, "come for a walk with me before work. Let's get some of those toxins out of our bodies."

The alcoholism was critical to his maleness. Counterproductive to his weight loss, my dad would nonetheless always finish the working week with a bottle of European spirits and a six-pack of beer. He couldn't drink casually during the week because that would disrupt his workout routine. So every Friday he'd render himself a stumbling, boozy baby, locking himself in his office.

What followed was a barrage of verbal abuse—we were "bitches" and "didn't appreciate him"—and then hysterical crying over the fact he had "failed as a father," or because "no one ever cares." If there were times my sister and I felt particularly frightened, we would call a cab and stay at a friend's house while my mom dealt with his moods. But we soon learned he wasn't afraid of driving drunk to find us. He wasn't afraid of crashing his car, getting arrested, or being hospitalized either.

Sooner or later, his insecurities became my habits. By the time I was 18, I had a severe eating disorder, plus an unhealthy reliance on alcohol. I ate raw till four, aggressively exercised, and prized my period-less adolescence. I loved that my body was working with me to deteriorate itself and look good.

The worst of my self-imposed deprivation came when I discovered my dad was cheating on my mom. Her name was Monica and she was from Romania; her hair was orange, like straw, and even now after years of self-awareness and therapy, in my eyes, Monica is still a home-wrecking whore. Back then, I had even more rage than I do now. To silence these emotions I turned to the treadmill. I worked on the only thing that made me feel I was in control. I couldn't handle my dad but I could manage how thin I was.

My sister would find me emaciated, running on the treadmill like a zombie. She'd try to pull me off the machine but I'd fight her with my nails and tears. When that didn't work, she reasoned with me. "Penny," she said, "Imagine what you could do with those two and a half hours every day if you didn't exercise. You could read, listen to podcasts, watch movies, or even learn a new skill." That was the clincher: I didn't want to waste my life in The Zone, like my dad. I wanted to be more than my insecurities.

When I moved overseas, I severed any remnants of my relationship with my him. On an international flight he had gotten drunk, called me a "bitch," then threatened to fight one of the passengers who tried to stop the irate tirade funneling against me. My psychologist says having a relationship with him is impossible. "For the good of the progress you're making with your diet and anxiety," she explained, "A distanced father-daughter deal is probably the best, for now." We still talk on occasion, and I think I do love him, but I wouldn't call on him to protect me. Not because I don't think he would—in his own weird way, he would—but because I can't risk him shattering my confidence again.

My mom didn't want to be worn down by him either. She took him back after he cheated on her but eventually filed for divorce anyway. She'd had enough of the cucumber cold press juice that was 70 percent whisky. Strangely, they are still friends; she takes him to the hospital every so often, and buys him food when he can't afford it himself. But she's distanced herself from him romantically. She loves her body, drinks shandies, and does zero exercise. She's never looked happier.

My dad is still an alcoholic. An ambulance rushed him to the emergency room a couple of months ago—they found a huge plate of glass protruding from his calf. In a drunken state, he'd kicked down his front door and couldn't bring himself to tend to the wound, or call for help. Instead he just sat there as blood collected around his body until a neighbor found him.

He's trying therapy. When we talk on the phone, every blue moon, he'll let slip of the sensitive chasm that's widening. "I'm calmer, Penny," he says, "I have a veggie patch coming along and the house renovations are almost finished. I can't wait for you to see it." And I'll tell him that the distance is good for us. I won't remind him that my last memory of that house he's renovating was him throwing me out of it, drunk. And he won't tell me about the glass sticking out of his leg, like a flag in earth. Instead, on the phone and in person, I wait for him to get better. Because I'm better and I'm happy. I'm just waiting for him to catch up.

Eating Disorders