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.