The Troubling Allure of Eating Disorder Books

Many people with eating disorders are well-versed in the ED pop lit, especially the personal stories and novels. Some of it is, of course, the age of many sufferers; most adolescents wouldn't be working their way through a tome on medical complications or feminist meanings of starvation. The other part is much more subtle and more sinister. A lot of times, the sufferer will, consciously or not, read a book to trigger herself.

This is something that people outside the ED world just don't get. Why would you want to learn how to kill yourself better? The answer is that it's just the nature of the disease. I never felt I was a "good enough" anorexic, and my disordered brain was a sponge, soaking up ways to eat fewer calories and get rid of more. I never really went out of my way to find these "tips," usually stumbling across them in my reading (I was the person reading those research-oriented tomes), and by the time I realized I actually had an eating disorder, I was sick enough that most of them had already occurred to me.

There has been much in the news about the new novel Wintergirls, about a high school senior with anorexia. To be honest, I haven't read the book and have no desire to. I know plenty about the inner experiences of anorexia--I don't need to read more about it.

But it's an interesting issue.

The subject was addressed on the Well blog today, when blogger Tara Parker-Pope asked the question "In writing about eating disorders, are authors, unwittingly, creating an alluring guidebook to the disease?"

It's something I realize I have done with my memoir, and it's not something I'm proud of. I went to great efforts during the writing of my second book to tone down as many of the lurid details as possible while still maintaining a narrative. People with eating disorders can be triggered by a wide variety of things, and these triggers are everywhere: supermarket tabloids, The Biggest Loser show, nutrition and "healthy eating" articles, you name it. Part of recovery is learning how to manage these triggers, whether it's knowing that images in magazines are Photoshopped, or eschewing those magazines entirely.

Besides, "Wintergirls," the main "bible" of the eating disordered world is "Wasted" by Marya Hornbacher. I'll admit, I own a copy. My friend in college (who also had an ED) gave it the most succinct and accurate review: "I finished it and then said, well shit, and made myself barf." Like most ED books, it's a train wreck of a book- the writing draws you in and you just keep going and waiting for the wreckage.

Would I be worried if my kid came home with a book about eating disorders? You bet. I read lots of novels about anorexia when I was younger and found them absurdly attractive, in that train wreck sort of way. Perhaps I was recognizing my underlying wiring in the characters. I don't know. I don't believe in banning books but I do believe in being cautious about what I encourage my friends and family to read, especially when books can inadvertently play into the ED mindset. Laura has some good thoughts here.

But I would like people to read more about eating disorders- more of the up-to-date scientific information on causes and treatments. If I really wanted people to know about eating disorders, I wouldn't recommend a novel with the stereotypes about the cold mother and distant father (all gleaned from reviews of "Wintergirls"), no matter how well written or how "haunting" it seemed. I would recommend Walt Kaye's website and FEAST and Maudsley Parents.

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6 comments:

Adrianna Joanna said...

Hey.:)

I've been reading your blog for some time, and I love it. It is one of very few places where I can go to escape the dieting mentality that I am engulfed in. I actually just finished writing a paper in English about how we are all going to die of obesity because of our horrible modern diets. (The teacher required us to write about this topic, from any angle we wanted. Naturally, I did something different from everyone else.:)

I have an ASD, so one of my special interests was reading medical literature, and one of my favorite topics was about eating disorders. I do not have an eating disorder, although my biological aunt on my mother's side does, so that's a genetic link. My mother and sister are obsessive dieters/"heathly lifestyle" gurus, but anyway, I consider myself extremely lucky becuase of this.

I first became interested in eating disorders when I was a pre-teen, which meant, among other things, I got the low-down not only on what can happen to you if you have an eating disorder, but also about what REALLY constitutes a healthy lifestyle and what can trigger an an eating disorder. Not to mention I got access to this information right at the beginning of the period that eating disorders are most likely to develop. So when I finally got dunked in the obesity hysteria, I was immune to it because I knew the truth.

Pro-ana media or even lurid media that is intended to educate, like the novels you mention, isn't just inspiration for those ill. It can be harmful for "normal" people, too, because it can glamorize the illness and lead to disordered behaviors even if there is no disease present. It also obscures the reality that far from being a romantic metaphor, it is a brutal brain disease that no one wants. And that hurts all of us.

I do believe that trauamtic events, bad parenting, stress, to escape, a need for control, a desire to look good, to "prove" something, like in a diet competition, and all of the stereotypical causes of eating disorders can be *triggers.* Hell, my aunt was one suh person to whom this applies.

There are even a small minority of manipulative people out there who harm themselves for the purpose of harming others, whether they threaten suicide or become "wannarexics," which may or may not develop into a full-blown eating disorder, and then it's no longer a vindictive choice. Or they may do something else to hurt themselves and others. These people are just that, manipulative, and they will do anything to manipulate. Fortunately, they are a minority that has nothing to do with real mental illnesses.

But these triggers absolutely are not causes. People who experience the triggers may never develop an eating disorder and those with idyllic lives may be consumed by them. They can only be triggers when there is a genetic and biochemical code to trigger.

Maybe that's part of why so many people think eating disorders are a choice made by weak-minded, overly privileged girls who can't stand not getting everything they want. People have it in their heads that EDs MUST be caused by bad backgrounds or environments, and this girl has nothing to that effect! There are no eating disorders in Africa, blah, blah, blah.

Your writing reminds me a lot of "Listening to Prozac" by Peter Kramer. Good work.:)

Adrianna Joanna said...

Just to clarify, and to give an example that doesn't involve "silly" teenage girls, I am part of a domestic violence program, and a common tactic that abusers used against women was to threaten suicide, to sink back into alcoholism and addiction, to not take medication for a mental illness, etc. Those are the kind of manipulative people I am talking about.

Susie said...

Instead of reading such books to look for "tips" with regards to anorexia, i was searching for that magic answer.

i read about the girls and women who had recover but i wanted to know how? what was the turning point? how did they start eating more and gain weight?

As i have discovered there is no specific answer or thing that happens. I don't know what my turning point was, or why it happened. And i'm pretty sure i didn't find it in a memoir or book.

Susie

xx

Gwen said...

I started reading eating disorder memoirs when I was in 7th grade. I've always wondered what it was about them that drew me in. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said you recognized something in the protagonists of those novels in yourself. I definitely saw their faulty wiring and strange ways of thinking in my own brain. I picked up so many tips from those books but I can't say that those books made me sick. They certainly didn't help. I try to stay away from them now that I'm recovered even though I still keep them on my bookshelf (Why? Hmmm...) It's funny how people in general think that giving kids knowledge about eating disorders via these types of books will help prevent eating disorders. If my daughter started reading this type of literature, I'd definitely be alarmed.

♥nervosa♥ said...

I must say though- Wintergirls is the BEST book I have everrr read (and I'm a really big reader) it's well written, articulate, and definitely creative! I didn't find it triggering at all. There were no 'tips&tricks" that were new to anyone with an ED, so I felt that it didn't prompt me with new ways to become sicker. And all the ED actions she took had a negative consequence very true to what would happen.
and also- in the end her mind clears and she begins to recover.
The very last line of the book is incredibly smart. It's amazing and inspiring and leaves you thinking "recovery is the way out of this hell..." and your mind clears a little too.

seriously, I think that you should at least consider reading it. It's deffffinitely better than Wasted, lol. That one got me in a lot of trouble :/

♥nervosa♥ said...

I must say though- Wintergirls is the BEST book I have everrr read (and I'm a really big reader) it's well written, articulate, and definitely creative! I didn't find it triggering at all. There were no 'tips&tricks" that were new to anyone with an ED, so I felt that it didn't prompt me with new ways to become sicker. And all the ED actions she took had a negative consequence very true to what would happen.
and also- in the end her mind clears and she begins to recover.
The very last line of the book is incredibly smart. It's amazing and inspiring and leaves you thinking "recovery is the way out of this hell..." and your mind clears a little too.

seriously, I think that you should at least consider reading it. It's deffffinitely better than Wasted, lol. That one got me in a lot of trouble :/

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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