Photo of Cameron Esposito by Mandee Johnson.
We can always count on stand-up comedian Cameron Esposito to deliver hilarious commentary on important topics like periods, lesbians, and the absurdity of defunding Planned Parenthood. In addition to her live performances, I often look to Cameron Esposito’s Twitter to keep me laughing at how ridiculous our world can be. A couple weeks ago, though, Cameron’s Twitter followers got a deeper glimpse into her personal life, when she tweeted about having struggled with an eating disorder since she was 10.
“Took 3yrs but today's the day someone in Hollywood talked about my body by saying ‘You're not THAT big.’ I hadn't said I was big,” she tweeted. A few minutes later, she followed up with, “I know what is required of women who do my job & tbh [to be honest] I'm surprised it took so long for someone to say that to my face.” She also wrote, “I’ve struggled with an eating disorder since I was 10. And I feel strong & solid & better than I ever have.”
For me, those comments resonated deeply. I, too, am a gay person who has wrestled with an eating disorder for many years. I’ve had to spend a lot of time trying to re-frame eating disorders as not just a problem for rich, white, straight, cis-girls—as they’re often portrayed in media. Cameron Esposito was very brave to open up about her struggles and her honesty helps expand conceptions of who eating disorders impact. Her decision to share this part of herself reminded me that I’m not the only one. I can’t express in words how powerful and important that is.
I talked to Cameron on the phone about what compelled her to share this part of herself with her Twitter followers. I am so grateful for how much she opened up about her history with an eating disorder, gender expression, and coming out.
GRACE MANGER: Last week you posted on Twitter about your struggles with an eating disorder. Can you tell me more about your decision to talk about this personal issue publicly?
CAMERON ESPOSITO: I actually wrote a column for the AV Club last year about wardrobe fittings, and how I have struggled a lot with body shame in the past, and still do. Body shame was a huge part of who I was as a teenager, and as an adolescent, and it’s still something that I am working through now as a person in my early thirties. Disordered eating and distorted body image are still part of the way my brain works, so taking my shirt off in front of a stranger at a fitting is something I had to mentally and emotionally build myself up to be able to do. Generally, these fittings have gone really well. The wardrobe folks are professionals and they are kind. I’ve most often heard, “Oh that looks great on you.”
Last week was different. I was talking with somebody in wardrobe about how I wasn’t comfortable in the shirt that she initially put me in. I am short and compact, and I have big boobs and some curves. I was in a boxy top and I was like, “This is making me look bigger than I actually am.” And she said to me, “Oh come on! You’re not even that big!” The way that she was saying it made it clear to me that she thought I was saying to her, “I’m feeling really fat right now!” when what I was actually saying was, “I would like to look like myself onscreen.” I was really unprepared for that answer because it was clear to me that she was coming into it with her own judgment of my body.
And there’s also that script—especially between women talking about their bodies—of saying, “I feel fat!” so that someone will respond, “You’re not fat!” It sounds like she was just following that script that we’re fed and expected to keep to.
It was following that script, it really was. That was interesting to me because I hadn’t set her up for that, and also because she didn’t say, “Oh come on, you’re not fat”—which I think is also something that women are taught to say to each other, which speaks to body shaming in a different way—but that’s also not what she said. She said, “You’re not even that big,” which made me feel almost ranked or compared against other people and other actors on set. That didn’t make me feel great. So, I typed out a tweet, took a screenshot of it, and sent it to my fiancée, Rhea Butcher, who’s a comic as well, and said, “What do you think is going to happen if I tweet this?” Body image is something I’m still learning to talk about in public spaces and I didn’t want to trigger the conversation that you’re talking about. I wasn’t trying to get people to tweet back, “You’re not fat!” I was more looking to talk about a really big part of my past and current thought process—an area in which I’ve been unhealthy and in which I’ve worked hard to be healthier through therapy, nutrition education and a LOT of self-reflection. But I decided to tweet it, and to try to not care how people responded.
And were you able to do that? What was the aftermath like for you?
Yeah, actually, I was able to do that. I had to get back to work—I was in the midst of shooting a movie—so I decided to put it out into the universe and let it be a new part of what I’m introducing about myself. I say introducing because this isn’t something I talk about on stage yet. It takes work to figure out how to talk about difficult and personal topics without eliciting pity from the audience. Pity is the enemy of all standup comics. There’s nothing worse than being pitied. Comics bomb onstage because once you’re pitied you can’t get a laugh. It’s just too cruel to laugh at someone you pity. There’s so much pain in my past about this that I have to figure out the approach that will keep the audience feeling like I’m in control, and keep them away from pity. It’s something I really hope to be able to tackle in the next year or two. I’m working on it, trying to figure it out.
I’m also writing a book right now and there’s a portion in the book about it, so that’s been helpful. I’ve uncovered some new ways to talk about my relationship with my body. When I was a kid I felt my body was different than the norm, partly because I had a more muscular and stocky build, and an older sister who had a very long and stringy build. I couldn’t help comparing us. There was also the much bigger matrix of growing up as a little gay kid in an area without other out gay people. I didn’t know I was gay, but I felt different. I was confused about my body and my gender, and I think that some of my expressions of masculine energy were confusing not just for me but also for everyone else around me. As a kid, I didn’t get made fun of because folks thought I might be gay, but I would get called fat a lot by other kids and also by their parents. I think they didn’t have another word to use.
Yeah. So when you say that they didn’t have another word for it, so they used “fat” instead, what do you think that other word would be?
Nice! What has it been like being a queer woman and struggling with an eating disorder? Did coming out affect your relationship with your body and with food?
Yeah. My personal low point—the timeframe when my eating disorder was more of a health risk—was when I was in late middle school through early college. Of course, that’s also the time when my body was becoming an adult woman’s body, and I think I was trying to assert some control over the scariness of that change, so I heavily monitored my eating. I weighed all of the food that I ate, and counted calories down to the single calorie. I also had an extremely restrictive list of foods that I would eat, and I didn’t allow myself any variation. I would eat things like dry noodles with nothing on them, because then I could read the back of the package and know the calorie count exactly. It made it impossible for me to participate in a lot of things because I couldn’t eat with other people and I was very angry all the time, because I was very hungry all the time.
My eating disorder was also triggered by the interactions I had with my boyfriend. I loved him and thought he was a really cool guy, so if he wanted to make out, I thought we should make out. But even though he was cool and I loved him, it felt terrible to be with him. After he would leave, I would soothe myself with food. That was the only time I left my restrictive way of eating, and I would binge hard to try to comfort myself through this massive, painful confusion about why it didn’t feel great to make out with my boyfriend.
Realizing I wanted to be with women and coming out helped me a lot. Being able to work with my body’s needs and desires in sex and relationships allowed me to see the possibility of working with my body’s needs and desires when it came to my eating habits. Those things definitely coincided for me. The guys I dated before coming out had bodies that existed at a distance for me—I could appreciate them, but I wasn’t really into them, so I wasn’t able to see what it means to truly find another person attractive. When I starting dating women, this changed. I loved every part of my first girlfriend’s body because it was every part of her. Understanding this helped me so much to better love my own body.
I get that. So now you’re a comedian—it’s your job to be in front of people in the spotlight all the time. Do you think about your body a lot when you’re on stage? Does that at all affect how you approach standup?
Actually, this is so wild, but standup completely clears my head. I am never hard on myself when I’m on stage—almost about anything, and almost to a fault. I really love being on stage, it’s the place in the world where I feel the most free. Standup has been this wonderful tool for me. It’s the place where I got to be the most honest first. I was coming out on stage before I was coming out to people interpersonally. It’s a beautiful tool that I got to use. Now it’s my profession, but at the time it was a mechanism. I generally feel rad as hell on stage!
Awesome! Is there anything else you would like to say?
I think the final thing that I would say is that I’m certainly not at the end of this. You and I didn’t solve this problem just now in this conversation. But it’s really important to me to talk about this as an ongoing struggle, and how it doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you if you live in the world in this way. An eating disorder is something to seek treatment and support for and it’s something that requires work and understanding and evolution. But I also think that some part of my eating disorder will remain with me as I live the rest of my life—either as part of a daily struggle, or maybe eventually, as a part of my past. It’s okay if that’s the place that you’re in, too.