Expressing Disorder: Art Therapies for Eating Disorder Treatment

A still image from the documentary “Expressing Disorder”

By Valerie Martin

Several years ago, David Alvarado learned that the woman he had recently fallen in love with was severely bulimic. Never having been exposed to eating disorders (EDs) at a personal level, questions swirled around his head, but answers were elusive. The more David read about EDs, the more he wanted to understand the deep, painful emotions underlying the destructive attitudes and behaviors of EDs. As a filmmaker, he decided that the best way for him to do so was to make it his next project.

As he began researching and speaking with experts in the ED field, David came across discussions about expressive art therapy and immediately gravitated toward this style of treatment for a number of reasons:

“Art therapies are a highly visual approach to treating eating disorders, which made them ideal for a medium like film,” he explains. “I was also drawn to how engaging this type of therapy is. In art school, they teach you that art is first and foremost a way of eliciting an emotional reaction from your audience. So, if you can spill you emotions out on the page and make someone else feel how you felt, then it seems to me that this is an excellent way to connect with other people and feel that you’ve been heard.”

After a successful fundraising event in which Dallas-area artists contributed pieces for a silent auction, David began to plan for filming. However, when he found out he got accepted to Stanford’s MFA program in Documentary Film and Video Production, he made the decision to put the project on the back burner. Over the next three years during and after his graduate program, David filmed in art therapy ED treatment programs in north Texas, Florida, New York, and Colorado. He has filmed variations including drama therapies, movement and photo therapies, and traditional visual art therapies. Today, the filming is complete, and David is now focused on raising additional funds to pay for a post-production team.

A self-proclaimed neophyte to the field of eating disorders, David assembled an Advisory Board of seasoned ED therapists and experts to counsel him throughout the process of filming. His goal with “Expressing Disorder” was to make a film that would be a message of hope and healing to those suffering from EDs, and a vehicle to showcase art therapies and how powerful they can be for the journey of recovery. “There are numerous books and films out there about eating disorders, but many of them are sensational and go for shock value,” he says. “The way they tell the story focuses on the disorder, not the individuals, and they can be very damaging for people actually suffering from eating disorders themselves because they can be very triggering.” For David, it was important to create a film that would be healthy to watch for people currently struggling with EDs, and help – rather than hinder – their recovery process. As someone who has been in successful recovery from an ED for several years, I am grateful to see a film like this being made. It is a much-needed breath of fresh air and will be a valuable asset for those struggling to find hope in their recovery, as well as a message to professionals to see the potential of multidimensional, eclectic treatment.

Anorexia nervosa was named in a recent study as the most fatal psychiatric disorder, with bulimia and other eating disorders also increasing risk of death. With illnesses that are so serious and also highly secretive, finding a way to film enough footage of therapy sessions was no easy task. “The brave women who participated in the film stepped forward for this project because they recognized it as a way to help other people who might be struggling with similar issues,” David said.  He also knew he needed to ensure that the filming process was in no means counterproductive to the recovery of any participants. The therapists he worked with would contact former clients who had been in recovery a significant length of time and ask them to come back for the filming. “We used the filming process to revisit their therapy, but it was not compromising because these individuals are already in a sustaining phase of recovery from their disorder.”

Body image is typically a major component of an ED, though the root issues go much deeper than just food and weight. So, whether a person has negative body image or a full-on eating disorder, David believes art therapy is a powerful vehicle for raising awareness of the problems buried beneath these surface manifestations. From his perspective, art therapies can help a person uncover and face the underlying issues in a way they may not have been able to in the past.

“Art is such an important tool for communication, especially for emotions, so it is the perfect tool for facilitation of a meaningful conversation about those problems,” he said. “When you add in the element of a professional therapist along with those artistic mediums, pinpointing underlying or subconscious concerns becomes more possible.”

At Adios Barbie, we believe it’s important to discuss diversity (or lack thereof) in the media, and this issue is especially poignant regarding EDs. There is an antiquated popular perception that EDs are a “rich white girl” thing. Although this belief is increasingly recognized as outdated, the fact is that many individuals in ED treatment programs do fit the profile of white, female, and at least middle class. However, it is important to distinguish between the prevalence of EDs and formal ED treatment. Only one in 10 people with an ED receive treatment, and only 35% of that group gets treatment in a specialized facility. Thus, those in treatment centers do not come close to representing all those suffering from an ED — and most professionals now acknowledge that EDs do, in fact, affect everyone. A survey by Essence Magazine reported that African American women were at risk and suffer from EDs in at least the same proportion as white women. Additionally, in some cases, cultural attitudes can impact whether a person suffering from an ED seeks treatment. According to the Renfrew Center, EDs are one of the most common psychological problems facing young women in Japan; yet, many people go undiagnosed due to the shame in seeking treatment.

David concurs that cultural norms and expectations could certainly be one of the reasons he did not see diversity in the programs he visited. “Taking my family as an example, I can’t imagine any of my Mexican family members seeking professional help about body image issues. In that culture, the more common path is to seek out healing in your church and amongst your family.” Additionally, socioeconomic status come into play to some degree as well, as many ED treatment programs are enormously expensive, leading many to face their struggle without professional help if they do not think they can afford treatment. [1] With regard to men, since about 90% of people suffering from EDs are female, it’s also not shocking that David did not come across men in the programs.

Moreover, David explains that making an encyclopedic, comprehensive documentary about EDs was not his goal in creating the film.

“I wanted to showcase the impact these amazing therapies can have on individuals with eating disorders, and I felt it would be unnecessary and detrimental to the project to get bogged down in too many details or explanations,” he said. “There are already numerous resources out there for learning the basics about EDs, such as understanding the various types of disorders, warning signs, and who is affected. This film has a very specific focus and was made for specific reasons: First, I wanted to create a film that illustrated that eating disorders are not about food. They’re about something much deeper, and this film helps dispel that popular myth. Second, there has never before been a documentary that shows such a wide array of art therapies; and finally, most popular media today about eating disorders is unhealthy to watch for people who have eating disorders themselves.”

As for David’s favorite type of therapy he encountered, drama therapy takes the cake (though I’ll come right out and confess, anything involving masks gives me the heebie-jeebies.) “It is amazing to see the women acting out their ED, personifying it for the first time. I thought I understood how intense the experience of EDs were based on my discussions and research, but after seeing people externalize and speak to their EDs like that – I truly realized how severely they loathed their own bodies in a way I could not have understood before.”

During the next 15 days, David is attempting to reach his fundraising goal of $25,000 for a post-production team for “Expressing Disorder,” which would include an editor, colorist, audio mixer, educational programs for outreach, and DVD production. A former film student myself, I can tell you that all of these things are necessary for creating a quality film with the production value a project like this deserves.

Watch the film’s teaser here:

To learn about how you can contribute, visit

For more information about David Alvorado and this project, visit the website for “Expressing Disorder” at


[1] Although cost for comprehensive treatment can indeed be prohibitive, there are therapists and ED programs that work on a sliding scale or are flexible with payment; contact the National Eating Disorders Association for information about programs and professionals in your area.


Related content:

EDNOS: The Eating Disorder You Haven’t Heard Of

Discrimination and EDNOS: One Woman’s Story

Celebrating Eating Disorder Recovery: Inaugural NEDA Walk in Texas

Study: Black Girls 50% More Likely to be Bulimic than Whites

Multicultural Women & Body Image

You Don’t Have to Have an Eating Disorder to be Image Obsessed

3 thoughts on “Expressing Disorder: Art Therapies for Eating Disorder Treatment

  1. I am going to have to check the movie out. I have been struggling with BED treatment and am really interested in the movie. Thanks for making me aware of it.

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