Once, early in my career, I was killing time on a business trip by browsing a bookstore. I was traveling with a colleague, and when she saw the armful of novels I’d picked up off a table featuring titles about anorexics and various other broken heroines, her interest was piqued.
“I should read some of those, too,” she said. We both worked with teenagers, we reasoned as I checked out. It would be helpful to find some path to understanding, even through a work of fiction, how the eating disordered mind worked.
Except that I wasn’t really reading out of professional interest. I was actively bulimic and hungry for eating disorder porn.
Stories To Feed An Eating Disorder
There are plenty of books out there about eating disorders. Some of them are well written, some of them not so much. One thing that’s true about all of them is that they are dangerous.
Let me back that up: They can be dangerous. I’m sure they’ve all been written by well-meaning authors who just want to explore the fragile psyche of the disordered eater and probably also present some kind of cautionary tale to scare the reader away from falling into the same behaviors him- or herself.
Here’s the problem, though: If you think a scary book about eating disorders is going to scare an anorexic straight, you have severely underestimated the ability of a truly disordered eater to find inspiration in the darkest and most twisted of places.
At the peak of my most intense phase of active bulimia, I devoured eating disorder porn like it was a box of Devil Dogs followed by a half gallon of ice cream chased with a bag of Doritos washed down with a liter of Diet Coke. Books, movies, Very Special TV episodes, websites, magazine features… if it came across my field of vision, I was all over it. And much like my food binges, I regurgitated these media binges — as dark and damaging motivation.
In fact, I read my first anorexia book — The Best Little Girl in the World — in the first place because it was so incredibly popular on the pro-ana message boards I frequented as my bulimia was taking root. (Seriously, Google it. Anorexics love this book. Just thinking about the title makes me thirsty for the grapefruit juice the protagonist drinks in one scene instead of ordering a hamburger.)
Eventually, as I tried and failed and tried and failed and tried to get my behavior under control, I recognized these stories for the trigger they were (are) and started avoiding them. Except when I didn’t. (I would have to use the phrase “and failed” a lot more times to convey just how relapse-y my life has been for the past 17 years.)
A Cookie-Cutter Narrative
One of the problems I have with eating disorder narratives in media is that they tend to follow a similar arc, with our heroine (almost always a heroine, or anti-heroine) experiencing some sort of near miss or rock bottom before landing upon a path to recovery. Often she’s scared straight by the loss of a friend or sister to an eating disorder, or by a friend or sister’s comparable tragedy. And they almost always end with a light at the end of the tunnel: Our heroine is going to be OK now that she’s figured out that food doesn’t have to be the enemy.
Even very good eating disorder books, like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, can be very bad for readers with eating disorders. (This New York Times piece from 2009 sums up the issue well, and the comments are worth reading, too, for more personal stories from disordered eaters who used books as how-to manuals.)
For someone like me, who saw bulimia as something I’d do temporarily until I hit my goal weight and then self-recover, it seemed simple enough to just stop short of rock bottom, and these books provided what seemed like a blueprint to do just that. I didn’t need to be deathly thin, just thin enough. I’d engage in my broken, brain-damaged approach to nutrition like it was just another crazy diet, and when I was happy with the way I looked, I’d find the light at the end of my own tunnel and everyone around me would be so happy for me, and because I was so much smarter than the girls in these books and movies, I’d keep it under control and stop before things got out of hand.
And in the meantime, I’d get inspiration and ideas from the books while appearing to simply be indulging my interest in youth development.
In fact, I almost didn’t start this blog, knowing the very real possibility that someone with an eating disorder would find it and use it as inspiration (or, more realistically, reverse motivation, since as I have made very clear, bulimia did not make me thin). And then, as I thought it through, it became a driving reason that I did start this blog. People with eating disorders need to hear my story, I decided, because there are so few stories of eating disorder failure that are told honestly and fully.
In real life, eating disorders don’t follow the neat arc in books like The Best Little Girl in the World, dainty heroines starting out losing a few pounds for ballet class and gradually spiraling into dangerous thinness only to be rescued in the nick of time by intervention and therapy. Real life eating disorders are all-consuming and messy. They may or may not result in weight loss. They do not necessarily lead to interventions with tearful family members who suddenly realize their complicity in your unhappiness, 13 Reasons Why-style, and who weep over their concern and regret as they cling to your sylphlike frame and beg you to eat.
Your eating disorder might not make your dad feel bad about that time he said you looked like you were gaining weight, but it will make you feel bad every single day.
In real life, you get to experience all the sickness, all the obsession, and still not feel good about yourself. In fact, you might wake up one day in your late 30s and realize you’ve spent more than half your life hating your body and it hasn’t made you thin or beautiful or happy — just tired.
Questions (But Not Answers)
I’m not going to sit here and say no one should ever write a novel about a character with an eating disorder. I don’t think these books have to be damaging, although it’s important for writers, publishers and others to realize that books about eating disorders can and will be read and taken to heart by readers who experience eating disorders, and they should weigh whether a book has the potential to do more harm than good.
So what’s the answer? Listen, if I had answers, I’d be on a beach in Bora Bora right now feeling good about how I looked in a swimsuit, not typing away at an anonymous blog about my life as an eating disorder failure. But I do have some questions, and that’s the first step on the path to answers.
For writers: Why does the story you want to tell matter? What purpose does the character’s eating disorder serve? When people with eating disorders turn to your book for inspiration — AND THEY WILL — will they find it, or will they come away with doubts about what they’re doing? What have you done to truly understand the disease you’re writing about?
For readers: Is picking up a book about eating disorders a healthy thing for you to do? Are you truly trying to understand the psyche of the disordered eater, or are you looking for diet inspiration? Should you really be reading this book?