In recent years, representations of eating disorders have become more common on screen and in the literature. Think about Lily Collins’ slim figure as she counts calories in Netflix movie To the bone, or the young protagonist of the series Insatiable, which gets lean after a summer of liquid diet. Sarai Walker’s novel Dietland is a satirical look at a woman radicalized after years of unsuccessful weight loss attempts, and JoAnna Novak’s book I must have you follows a mother and daughter who both have body dysmorphia. NBC recently commissioned a pilot for a sitcom starring Demi Lovato on “Friends Who Belong To A Problem Eating Group.” This abundance of narratives, however, did not result in a diversity of stories. And, unfortunately for the public, many of these works fall into the trap of sensationalism.
Eating disorders are a frustrating subject to portray. Details make the art fascinating, but illustrating the idiosyncrasies of messy eating can idealize it, offering seemingly ambitious images of lean bodies and tales of disciplined diets. I should know – I encountered this challenge in my work as a writer, and struggled with it as a reader and as a spectator. Bulimic teenager in 2005, I was influenced by the FX TV series Hungry, which featured restraining, frenzied and purging characters, sometimes in broad daylight. Many writers have analyzed how books and films on eating disorders can help perpetuate them with the public. Sometimes this work also distorts people with such conditions, misconceptions even some dieticians share. White, wealthy, or middle-class cis women with anorexia aren’t the only ones with eating disorders. These conditions also include bulimia and binge eating disorder, and they can affect men, people of color, and gay people.
The stakes for more careful and inclusive storytelling are high, especially now. The coronavirus pandemic appears to have fueled a dramatic increase in eating disorders among adolescents. The disease is usually exacerbated by the factors that shaped life under COVID-19: more stress, anxiety and isolation. Even as many countries reopen, new triggers appear, such as seemingly innocuous conversations about pandemic weight loss; in some places, treatment has become more difficult to obtain. As such, creators have a responsibility to leave behind the fictionalized images and archetypes that have long permeated art on the subject. In recent years, some authors, including myself, have tried to rise to the task.
Memoirs of Marya Hornbacher in 1998, Wasted, established the traditional model of writing about eating disorders more than two decades ago. The book lists her calorie count and binge eating; in one scene, the author describes himself after a purge: âI was sleepless. Throw away. Headbutt. Fingers swollen, throat swollen like a bull frog. The light went out, darkness and racing thoughts poured in. Prayers.
Hornbacher’s cut lyricism slides an ornate sparkle over his trauma. By making herself worse, she also inadvertently gives readers instructions on how to maintain their illness. Although Hornbacher recovers, the more sinister parts of his journey linger in the reader’s mind much longer than the passages offering hope. In the story she creates, eating disorders seem to be the domain of beautiful, middle-class white women. It is not Hornbacher’s fault that so many people have read his story as the only history. Nor is it his fault that so many sections of his memoir now appear free. She made readers aware of an issue that deserved more attention, and her book became a bestseller not despite the details she chose, but because of them.
When I first started writing about eating disorders, I followed Hornbacher’s lead. In essays on masculinity and body dysmorphia, I’ve included inordinate detail about my purges to illustrate the challenges people who identify as men face when receiving treatment. However, my stories modeled unhealthy behavior. Even while writing, I fell into the habits that I condemned on the page.
While working on my first novel, Atmospheric, which came out in May, I tried to do better. The book features a bulimic male character, but I adopted his best friend’s voice, so as not to offer a first-person account of the disease. While the book includes scenes of the purge, I was hoping that making the speaker a separate character would light up the toll of those experiences for everyone involved. At one point, as the narrator hears her friend purging herself, she laments: âThe sound hurt me; I didn’t know how to convince him to stop.
Some of the best recent writing on eating disorders not only broadens ideas about people with the condition, but also carefully chooses details to show their true harm. Memoirs of Kiese Laymon Heavy explores the author’s struggles with food and a gambling addiction as a black man from Mississippi; throughout the book, Laymon focuses on his emotions without elaborating on his habits. In his first novel, Cheat day, Liv Stratman writes about a narrator suffering from orthorexia (âcleanâ eating taken to the extreme). As the character loses weight, others voice concerns about his weight loss, and Stratman shows how a diet that initially seemed stimulating evolved into illness. The novel by Melissa Broder Milk fed highlights the links between isolation and body dysmorphia. However, it also includes repeated scenes from the purge of its protagonists, a reminder that writers can fall into old traps even as they enter new ground.
Jamie Hood’s first collection on self-building and gender identity, How to be a good girl: a mix, deviates slightly from this work by trivializing eating disorders. At the start of the book, she ironically reduces her “DE” to “one more clichÃ© in the bucket of what someone on Twitter mockingly calls my” trauma laundry list. ” Hood, a trans woman, shows how gender dysphoria can fuel gender dysphoria. body dysmorphia. And by weaving these topics together, her eating disorder never gets beyond the narrative or looks glamorous. It’s just part of his life.
Other authors have rethought the accounts of eating disorders from a critical perspective. In Larissa Pham’s collection of essays, Pop song: Adventures in art and intimacy, she writes about his writing on anorexia: âI tended to fall back on metaphor. I was a Earthworm. it left me hollow, stripped, cleansed of mucous contents â¦ I regret having tried to accept it by making it beautiful. Stripped of their context, these metaphors wither and decompose like leaves torn from a branch. Later in the collection, she analyzes the links between anorexia and race through the prism of art criticism, an approach that is both objectifying and empowering.
Self-objectification can risk slipping into self-monitoring – obsessive tracking of calories consumed, burned, and desired – as was the case in Hornbacher’s study. Wasted. Hood and Pham find better ways to capture that feeling, using techniques reminiscent of Jessie Kahnweiler’s 2016. Refinery29 Web series, The Skinny. Kahnweiler is playing herself, and in one scene, YouTube comments about her appearance prompt her to purge herself. However, Kahnweiler only offers a glimpse of the act itself. For recovering viewers, it conveys the emotional experience of bodily dysmorphia without including any triggering scenes; for others, it shows how harmless comments can lead to self-harm.
The series also complicates the recovery arc shown for cis white women in popular movies. In the last episode, Kahnweiler confesses to her mother that she is starting to recover from her bulimia, but her mother doesn’t believe her. This reaction mirrors that of the person on Twitter who writes Hood’s âTrauma Laundry Listâ. In each case, the viewer or reader is compelled to face the cruelty of such dismissal rather than proceed with the dismissal themselves. These stories ask us to rethink not only who suffers but also to question the way in which we treat those who suffer.
Of course, no single work can cover all perspectives. But many new writers are demonstrating that more responsible portrayals are possible and even stronger art. Pham’s nuanced calculus with his early sketches of anorexia shows the deep pain of living with an eating disorder. She joins Hood, Laymon, Kahnweiler, and others in creating portraits – both representative and expansive – of how race and gender shape these conditions. With this in mind, dangerous works like Wasted or Hungry no longer seems necessary. There are now better role models for writing about these experiences, and endless possibilities to chart new paths that will help readers connect with their bodies on and off the page.