How “Avengers: Endgame” Helped Me In My Eating Disorder Recovery

I had high hopes for Avengers: Endgame, and if I’m honest, I couldn’t imagine most of them would be fulfilled.

Thing is, I’m a fan. A super fan. I’ve been reading Marvel fanfiction for almost a decade. I’ve been writing it since Age of Ultron. I knew from experience not to get my hopes up too high for Endgame.

Yet Marvel surprised me: They made me laugh. They made me cry over the strength of friendships and Peter Parker losing his father figure. And they made me cheer when the shield was passed to Sam Wilson, meaning that from now on, Captain America would be portrayed by an actor of color.

Marvel also helped me along in my eating disorder recovery.

Yeah, you and me both. I didn’t expect this either.

Alright, a bit of context.

I’ve been struggling with bulimia since late 2011. I was 20 and once again in a smaller body for the first time in over a decade. I had lost a lot of weight years prior but was terrified of regaining the pounds I’d shed.

In 2010/2011, my perfectly laid-out plan for the future failed and the fact that other people’s decisions had control over the path my life would take truly hit home. Food became a way to reclaim control, both over my life and my body. And while this explanation is overly simplistic and ignores a multitude of other factors at play in the genesis of my eating disorder, it still marks a vital catalyst.

What followed were eight years of fighting, of resignation, of renewed struggles, of hope, of falling down again and again. Of thinking ‘I really need to stop, I’m hurting myself’ and failing to actually follow through. Of having suicidal thoughts for the first time in my life.

Fast-forward to February 2019.

After years of grasping in the dark to find the flick I needed to switch in order to truly start recovery, one weekend changed my life forever. I managed to abstain from bulimic behaviours for days in a row, even an entire week, for the first time in eight years.

The freedom felt — and still feels — surreal. I was getting my life back from addiction. I was making progress with improving my body image. My depression was lightening, too.

Of course, it’s not all unicorns and rainbows. I don’t have ‘bad days’ — I have bad hours. And good hours. A morning can start wonderful and turn on me by noon. Since you have to eat, you can’t just avoid the trigger when you’re trying to claw your way out of the abyss that is an eating disorder.

It’s difficult. It’s exhausting.

And when Avengers: Endgame rolled around, a film I’d been looking forward to for over a year, I was once again on the edge of giving in.

Endgame weekend

Luckily, I’d decided to see the film with my sister. Even back in the depth of my eating disorder, I found it easier to abstain from self-harming behaviours when I’m around others. Especially if these others know about my problems, which my sister does.

While I knew relapse was coming, I also knew I could at least endure until I was alone again on Sunday.

So I settled into my cinema chair Friday night, looking forward to just forget my issues for the next three hours (plus trailers).

Only problem — the movie didn’t let me.

Fat Thor

An hour in, when Professor Hulk and Rocket seek out Thor in New Asgard, the Thor we meet is not the God of Thunder we remember.

He has been numbing his guilt with alcohol and food, and his body bears the effects. While there is a truth in this portrayal that resonates with a lot of people, it’s also mostly played for laughs.

It had only been a few weeks since I began confronting my own internalized fat-phobia, and hearing the raucous laughter echo through the cinema whenever Thor’s larger body was called out pulled it all to the forefront of my mind.

Part of me could see the humour — the part of me who is still so, so afraid of gaining weight, because my brain has yet to unlearn the unattainable beauty ideals placed upon us by the multi-billion-dollar industries who profit off our self-hatred.

Another, bigger part of me, felt deeply hurt.

I watched on with mounting dread. What if Thor wasn’t worthy anymore? What if he couldn’t fight until he’d returned to his former, ueberhuman self? Will that be the message Marvel wants to send?

It wasn’t. Thor himself seemed most surprised to find out he is still worthy of Mjolnir, and I cheered when he entered the final fight in his larger body.

Yes, the depiction of Thor is steeped in fat-phobic attitudes, but the absence of my urge to laugh has shown me how far I’ve already come in dismantling my own, internalized fat-phobia.

There’s a long road ahead, but I’ve made progress.

(For more on Fat Thor, be sure to read Your Fat Friend’s wonderful essay on the topic.)

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Captain America’s shield. Photo: BagoGames

In the face of adversity

At that point in the film, I was still certain of my impending relapse. I was thinking about my stash of binge food at home, of the moment I’d be alone again and could give in. Get it over with. I’d managed to make it through 20 days relapse-free, the longest period since 2012 — surely I ‘deserved’ a break right now? I’d get back on the horse on Monday.

Then the final battle came.

The original Avengers go against Thanos with everything they got and for a moment, it seems like they’re winning.

Captain America even wields Mjolnir and saves Thor’s life.

But then it starts to crumble. Thanos gains the upper hand. He knocks out each one, until the only Avenger left is Captain America.

Thanos does what no villain has ever managed before — he splinters Steve’s shield. My mind flashed back to Tony’s vision in Age of Ultron, showing a lifeless Steve on a pile of bodies with the broken shield next to him.

All is lost, I thought, as Thanos reveals the endless stream of troops he brought with him from the past. Steve is on the ground, bloody and beaten, exhausted, on the brink of giving up.

But he doesn’t.

He heaves himself up. He tightens the strap of his shield.

And he steps forward, one lone figure against an army of Chitauri.

He has to be aware of how hopeless the situation is… and yet he got up.

It’s that shot, that image of Steve Rogers on swaying feet facing off against Thanos and his army that has burned itself into my mind.

ThanosVsCaptainAmerica by lethaldroid

In that moment, I realised deep down, in the core of my being, that giving up is not an option for me either.

In that moment, Steve’s seemingly final act of courage became a metaphor for my own struggles, for my own fight. My eating disorder has beaten me down again and again. I’m on the ground, exhausted and sore from years of trying, and there’s an army heading my way. An insurmountable force standing between me and my happy ending.

I could give up. Lay down my shield. Surrender.

Steve could have, too, in theory.

But that’s not who he is.

And it’s not who I want to be.

I may not be a super soldier, but Steve Rogers hasn’t always been Captain America either. He once was a scrawny kid from Brooklyn who stood up to bullies no matter how outnumbered or outmatched he was.

That’s the kind of person I want to be. The person I know I am, deep down.

Just like Steve, I will not give up. I will not give in.

And just like Steve, I am not alone.

Together

Right in that moment of inspired awe, when I thought all was lost for Steve, a familiar voice says, “On your left.”

Portals appear. Reinforcements come. An army in its own right. Steve takes his shield, takes Mjolnir, and his position among his team. “Avengers… assemble.”

Later that night, after I had cried and raged and laughed and dissected the film with my sister, once I was lying in bed, my mind circled back to the image of Steve facing off against Thanos.

I realized several things:

  1. Resigning myself to a relapse, or anything short of doing everything in my power to resist, would amount to Steve staying on the ground and giving up.
  2. Even if my eating disorder beats me, I will at least have tried and fought until my last breath. I will have no regrets. Like Bertolt Brecht said: “Those who fight might lose. Those who don’t have already lost.”
  3. I am not alone. I have a support system. I have tools to help me. I have people who are watching my six. I’m not facing off against Thanos alone. I’ve got a team at my side.

The following day, my sister and I went back to the theatre to rewatch. Steve’s peak moment of courage was even more inspiring for me the second time around and I committed the feelings to memory.

I made a decision, right then and there in the cinema: I’m not giving in. My relapse isn’t inevitable. I can do everything in my power to prevent it, and I will.

There is a chance I will remain relapse-free for months, even years. There’s a chance I will stumble, and if that happens, I’ll pull myself up and get back to fighting.

There is no chance, however, of me resigning myself to my eating disorder. Those times are over.

I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have reached this point without Avengers: Endgame. But it has sure helped me get there sooner. And, in the shot of Steve facing off against Thanos and his army, it has unwittingly provided me with a mental shorthand to keep me from stumbling.

The last thing I expected from this movie was for it to help me in my eating disorder recovery. But that’s what it did.

You might just think it’s a superhero movie. Yet to me, the MCU has become so much more.

Jay is a trans*, queer screenwriter, writer, activist and fan. Currently in eating disorder recovery. They/them. https://jaypendragon.com

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