The Tragic Tales of Eating Disorders in Fiction

Chris Lim | FreeImages.com
Chris Lim | FreeImages.com

By Francesca Baker

Art isn’t just for entertainment; it’s a place to explore important issues and gritty reality. Novels, although fiction, are rooted in facts — those big facts about being human, things such as life, loss, and love. They express the experience of life, reflecting emotions and providing an outlet for thoughts. They should not be censored, but allowed to flow honestly and unrestrictedly.

However, with the power of literature comes the potential for risk, and books about difficult topics, when not written carefully and thoughtfully, can be dangerous for those who are more vulnerable.

Numerous books have been written either as memoirs of an eating disorder, fictionalized accounts of the illness, or a blur of the two; in fact, entire sections of Goodreads.com are devoted to it. There are even eating disorder “fan fiction” sites. The idea of anyone being a fan of an eating disorder is terrifying, but a true reality, made clear by the stunning popularity of the ED fiction genre.

There’s no doubt that such fiction can be an excellent tool for education and explanation about these deadly illnesses and the self-destructive behaviors they involve. EDs can be incredibly isolating, and incomprehensible to the majority of people. Handing a book that articulates your own thoughts and feelings to a friend or carer can be a way to communicate with them, and to offer a glimpse of insight into a difficult and misunderstood illness.

Fictionalized eating disorder novels can help people understand that food is not the only thing at issue, although obviously it is very prevalent. Rules, numbers, possible causes, behaviors, and emotions are all explored. In Life Sizeby Jennifer Shute, for example, the protagonist reveals her fascination with food through recitations of calories, recipes, and menus, and spends much of her time absorbed in reveries of food. In Second Star to the Right, by Deborah Hautzig, the main character Leslie’s eating disorder is rooted in her fear of failure, whereas Natasha Friend’s Perfect: A Novel is about the impact of a death on the protagonist. Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia is far grittier, with its detailed depictions of institutionalization, addiction, lanugo, failing hearts, broken relationships, and a life falling apart.

However, most of the readers of these books (I am hazarding a guess here, I admit, but it’s an informed guess) are not caregivers or professionals, but those with or recovering from an eating disorder. There is a value for sufferers in these novels, as words offer a bond with other sufferers and help them realize that they are not alone.

While the prevalence of ED fiction might be helpful if it were inclusive and aimed to assist in recovery, the mundane, obsessive, isolated reality of eating disorders is often ignored, or masked in florid prose. The myopic focus of those illnesses means that sufferers’ libraries can start to resemble their brains, the pathological preoccupation with food spilling out into their reading material. Numbers become guidelines and targets for the vulnerable reader, and even stark and harsh depictions can be detrimental for those who might fear they are not “ill enough.”

In How to Disappear Completely: On Modern AnorexiaKelsey Osgood is highly critical of such books, and says that their aspirational and inspirational tones disguise eating disorders as virtue. Their poetic and ethereal language suggests that they are something glamorous and pure, a spiritual strength even as the body breaks. Although difficult to comprehend for many, there’s an allure to the stories for the public and publishers, with mental illness still being mythologized as something ethereal and fascinating. Mental illness has been romantically linked to creativity due to a seemingly skewed incidence of poor mental health being found in the artist world, including notable writers such as Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Ernest Hemingway.

The glamorization of any other disease would be seen as alarming, but there’s something about eating disorders that makes them an exception. When sufferers are still equating thinness with privilege and self-worth, eating disorders’ depiction in fiction, while possibly not attractive, is certainly not as terrifying as it should be. In Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson, the character Lia describes an eating disorder by saying “I believe that you’ve created a metaphorical universe in which you can express your darkest fears.” It almost sounds beautiful, especially to someone whose head space is already consumed by an eating disorder. Mental illness is an unknown, and so by consequence becomes something intriguing.

It’s important to remember that these books will not cause an eating disorder. Someone going to them deliberately seeking advice is already ill. But they provide that advice, as dangerous as it is, and thus perpetuate some of the issues. It’s a similar impulse to anorexic people buying Weight Watchers magazines or diet books. They’re not the cause, but they certainly can’t help. The obsession with eating and food is fueled by the reading, and the books further envelop the individual in their disorder.

The focus on food and weight makes those suffering from eating disorders see resonant issues everywhere. Even Frozen, the Disney film, has been described as both a parable for recovery and “thinspiration” for the disordered eating community. If people want to find tips, they will do so.

The media’s focus on anorexia in almost all representations of eating disorders means that readers’ perspectives can become skewed and one-dimensional. “Young woman with perfectionist traits develops anorexia in her bid to be skinny” is the story we think we know. But what about bulimia? Or does purging not make for such easy reading? Fat Chance by Lesléa Newman was published in 1994, yet remains the most-read book discussing bulimia in the genre. The results of binge eating disorder are written about, but this tends to be with a critical eye and judgmental view of “fat” characters. Orthorexia — I don’t know of any novels that have tackled this subject, but imagine they would read similarly to Women’s Health magazine. And that murky area of EDNOS. Where are those stories to be found? As well as not being a supportive read for sufferers, eating disorder novels are also not such an accurate reflection for outsiders.

Bibliotherapy, the practice of using texts to help treat illness, is a more formal process of something that we all know — books can be powerful. They can alter our gaze, shift our perspective, and help thought processes. Words can be used as a remedy for illness, to soothe distress and inspire positive living. The responsibility in this process lies with both the reader and writer. Writing your story can provide a cathartic value, but it’s important to consider how the results will be read.

And readers should be mindful of what it is they are seeking from the books they read. While these books can provide comfort, they are also potentially triggering, damaging, and brutal, providing validation and a framework within which the illnesses can be accepted. While eating disorders are very real and so must be represented in fiction, they should not be lauded, glamorized, or encouraged. The facts are too scary.