• Wed, Feb 29 2012

Eating Disorder Lit: Helpful Or Triggering?

Eating Disorder Awareness Week

Is eating disorder lit ‘triggering?’ That’s the question we found ourselves asking at Blisstree when planning for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, after I confessed that I’ve read a bunch of eating disorder memoirs—and they didn’t always help me. The point of these memoirs, written by eating disorder survivors, is generally to shed light on the motivations, behaviors, and triggers of someone struggling with these problems. But for those of us who’ve struggled with disordered eating habits ourselves, the books can come across like how-to manuals.

I can speak from experience on this front. In my teens and early 20s, I dealt with bouts of what would still be called an ‘eating disorder not otherwise specified‘ (ED-NOS). I restricted calories like an anorexic and purged like a bulimic, without ever reaching the technical criteria for anorexia or bulimia (no missed periods, no bingeing, not a low enough body weight). The two serious disordered eating periods I went through were my freshman year of college and my first year out of college—periods of great change, yada yada yada. I was a textbook Type A, control-seeking girl with an eating disorder. And though my bulimic/extreme restricting periods were few, I harbored dysfunctional views about food, control, beauty and weight most of my young adult life.

One of the things I loved to do when I was in full-blown eating disorder mode was read about other people with eating disorders. In fact, that was, like, my favorite thing. Part of the problem with anorexics is that food, and how to avoid it, becomes an obsession. But it’s something you have to hide from the people in your real life. Online pro-ana communities are appealing because it’s a space where you can openly discuss the things you spend so much time thinking about but not talking about. It’s nice to meet other people who obsess about food and diet and bodies as much as you do. And it’s also comforting to read about them. When I needed eating disorder support, I turned to pro-ana Livejournal communities (this was the early 2000’s) and books like Girl, Interrupted and Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted.

In Girl, Interrupted, memoirist Susanna Kaysen (played by Winona Ryder in the movie) is hospitalized for borderline personality disorder, but there’s at least one girl with an eating disorder at her hospital. And in the movie, Angelina Jolie’s proud sociopath Lisa is possibly thinner than the girl playing the anorexic patient. [Fun fact: Elizabeth Moss—aka Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen—plays a burn victim and schizophrenic in the film.]

Wasted is Hornbacher’s account of growing up with an eating disorder (she was only 21 when she wrote it). I love Hornbacher’s style (she also has a book about bipolar disorder, called Madness: A Bipolar Life)—she’s honest and unsentimental and often funny. But to write a book about an eating disorder that’s interesting to people who aren’t particularly concerned with eating disorders, you have to include some specifics about the habits and behaviors of the disorder: What you ate, how many calories you lived on, how you avoided detection. Reading Wasted at the height of my own anorexic/bulimic period helped me make sense of (and eventually overcome; don’t worry, I’m really remarkably fine now, guys) these disorders. But it also delivered a few tips on Being A Good Anorexic or Bulimic.

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  • Briana Rognlin

    This makes me wonder if eating disorder memoirs should come with a trigger warning… I feel like it can be really therapeutic and cathartic to read these kinds of stories, but yeah…when you’re struggling with recovery or in the thick of an eating disorder, it seems like reading the sordid details of how someone whittled their weight is just another means to obsess.

  • Kristin

    I recently read Gaining by Aimee Liu. It was actually a huge help in my getting help for the various EDs I’d been struggling with. There were, at times, things I read that I thought maybe I needed to try in order to get down to that last ‘goal weight.’ At times it made me feel inadequate, as if I was going about these EDs all wrong and didn’t even deserve to place myself in such a category. Looking back though, for me personally, it did more good than harm. It was inspiring to read about women and men from all walks of life, all ages, who had struggled with an ED and how they moved forward. It was also comforting to read that it wasn’t always about vanity because that wasn’t/isn’t my main issue. Like you said it was the control factor. But having real people explain that they overcame started to turn the gears in my head to think all hope was not lost for me.

  • Kathleen Fuller PhD (@HUGirl)

    Excellent article to start me reviewing my own position on Eating Disorder lit. Within every problem is a gift waiting to be discovered. I’m fortunate to have had the experience of struggling with the problem of an eating disorder in this lifetime—and experiencing the blessing of overcoming it.
    Exploring eating disorders gave me more than answers about why it happens. I’ve discovered solutions that address and alleviate the problem at its source. As a result, I live by these spiritual truths every day. This experience has given me the impetus to share these truths and insights with others by writing my (Not Your Mother’s Diet)bestselling book. I want to thank again To Margo Maine, Ph.D., for her words of wisdom at EDAP’s Eating Disorder
    Conference. Also to R.D. Longacre, Ph.D. who took the time to show me how to get started on my dream.

  • Erin Bella

    Yep. Books about anorexia and bulimia trigger behaviors — at least they did for me. Actually, I thought a few years into recovery it might be good for me to read some ed lit. In fact, I was asked to review Aimee Liu’s most recent book — a collection of stories from women (and men) during their process of recovery. Eleven months later and I’m not sure if I’m ready to finish Recovering Our Bodies, Reclaiming Our Lives. I’m so much healthier this year; healthier than I’ve ever been but that little tick in my brain that feeds off my insecurities is just lying in wait. I know it is. And I’m not willing to give up the freedom and peace that I’ve worked so hard to have — even if there’s something to be learned from someone’s experiences.

  • Life Lessons

    Years ago, I wondered if I could throw up after eating and lose weight. Then I thought, nah, if you could do that, tons of people would do it. Then, I read in the New York Times in 1981 how bulimia had just been classified as an illness and I thought, dang, I was right! When I told that story two years later in the hospital, after my getting myself in a world of trouble, my psychiatrist said it wasn’t the article that made me sick. It was thinking that this was a great idea that made me sick. In other words, if you’re going to have an eating disorder, reading about it will make it worse. But millions of other people will read the same article and say, wow, that’s pretty sick. Which, of course, it is!

  • Jess

    I agree so much. And it’s not just books- I truly believe that most of what I learned about how to have an eating disorder and in general be self-destructive came from watching Lifetime movies about eating disorders and self harm.

    Another danger here is that they are somewhat glamorized. They don’t show just how difficult it is to live with an ED, how gross and all-consuming they are, and how many pe0ple don’t get help soon enough into their disorder and live with it for several years, if not decades. And how HARD it is to get treatment, even if you DO have insurance.
    …And then there’s always someone that finds out and wants to help, and save them. Many people don’t have that, and in fact have families that harbor destructive eating behaviors and would not be available to promote a supportive environment for recovery. Plus, it gives people the impression of cause and effect in regards to close people’s responses: “I am sick/vulnerable and need to be saved, therefore someone needs to love me and help me.” – if no one notices or sees that I need help, I must not be “sick enough.”

  • Yolanda J. Barnett

    I think everyone deals with their eating disorders differently. For some girls, reading these books can act like a trigger- for others it can be a way to understand their own emotions by reading someone else’s experiences. The only thing that is certain is that having an eating disorder can cause severe and deadly health complications and reading a book about eating disorders isn’t going to cure anything, nor is it going to trigger an eating disorder in someone who isn’t already susceptible. It’s natural for someone who is obsessed with their disease (as most eating disordered individuals are) to want to read things having to do with that disease. If someone is suffering, they need to seek help from an eating disorder treatment center like Rader Programs or Avalon who can professionally help guide them towards recovery. Reading these books can work both ways, but nothing will get better unless they seek help to recover.