Writing about Eating Disorders

A few days ago, I was asked for my thoughts on a Young Adult novel that featured the voice of a girl with an eating disorder. I’m not going to comment on that particular book, as the author likes to threaten to sue those who criticise it. Instead, I’m going to write some general thoughts on books featuring characters with eating disorders. 

I have yet to read a book featuring a character with an eating disorder, that wasn’t problematic. They tend to have in depth descriptions of the character’s eating disordered thoughts. These usually involve intense fat-phobia, as well as descriptions of behaviours, calorie counts, low weights, physical features. Reading any one of those can potentially  trigger a person with an eating disorder into relapse. And relapses can be life-threatening. So, this is very dangerous territory. 

Some people say that if you have an eating disorder, you should simply stay away from reading such books. Problem solved. If only it were that easy. Often, someone will not know they have an eating disorder and so feel safe to pick up such a book. In my own case, I wasn’t aware I had one until I was 35. For years, I would get angry and indignant if anyone suggested it might even be a possibility. So, a warning not to read such a book would have had no effect on me. 

Added to that, some people with active eating disorders actively seek out things that will trigger them. This is one reason Pro-Ana material exists. They will read triggering books on purpose, skipping over the ‘lessons learnt’ endings, while reading and re-reading the dangerously triggering material. And so, it doesn’t matter that the book ends well, that the main character learns the error of their ways etc. What matters are the intimate descriptions of eating disordered thoughts and behaviour. 

Another type of book that can be very damaging is the ‘recovery memoir’ type books. The ones where the whole theme of the book is the journey into an eating disorder and back out again. Usually these are written by former sufferers, with the best of intentions. But again, going into any detail at all in describing the eating disordered thoughts and behaviours is damaging. The only exception may be a memoir or biography where the focus is on the life of someone, with the eating disorder needing to be mentioned to give a more complete picture, without it being the sole purpose of the book. An example may be a biography of someone like Amy Winehouse. And again, there needs to be great care taken to avoid vivid descriptions of triggering behaviour. 

There are some books about Eating Disorders that are actually quite useful for sufferers. These are mainly self-help books for those who cannot afford face-to-face therapy. These include workbooks incorporating Cognitive Behaviour Therapy etc. Other useful books are written to help the parents and careers of children, teens and young adults with eating disorders. These generally come with the advice of hiding them from the patients. Again, these tend to be books filled with practical advice, written by psychologists. 

So, if you are a writer with a great idea involving a character with an eating disorder and have decided it will form the basis of a book you’re going to write, I’ve a favour to ask of  you. Please reconsider. 

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2 thoughts on “Writing about Eating Disorders

  1. Awesome article. My daughter got mad at me because I never mentioned to her that I had trouble with anorexia in high school. (I’m 53 and it was a long time ago). What I figured out then was I had to get rid of having a scale in the house so I would not focus on what it read vs. what I wanted it to read. I also figured out not to forbid myself of any foods. My daughter thinks she might have “eating disorder tendencies’ –which I am aware of– so I have watched her closely to not repeat my mistakes. She said she would have been more careful and also would have mentioned it to her therapist if I had told her there was a “family history” of it. Never occurred to me because it was a long time ago. It also never occurred to me that reading about a character with an eating disorder could be triggering. Live and learn I guess. Please note: I don’t quite understand this triggering concept, so please let me know if my description above is not general enough. The last thing I would want is to write something triggering.

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    1. My daughter also has eating issues so I have to keep a close eye on her. My mom too but never ‘formally’. I’m sure my granny did as well. But none would ever admit it, so it’s hard to get a ‘family history’. All on the ‘autistic/EDS’ side of my family so I’m sure they’re all closely linked issues. But then again, you don’t have to have a family history to have any of these.

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