Can reading affect eating disorders?
Freda Worrell explores both the positive and negative impacts that reading can have on people with eating disorders.
I’ll admit it’s been a while since I read anything that wasn’t compulsory for the course I was doing. What I do remember, from the long ago days before the horrors of Inspector Calls and Jekyll and Hyde, was the sense of relief at finding another world to slip in to for a few hours- preferably with a packet of oreos.
This is part of the reason I had trouble believing that something that could be so helpful and relaxing for me be so damaging to someone else. However that is exactly what new research- led by the Independent and Beat ( the UK’s number one charity against eating disorders) is suggesting. The article (“How reading can affect your eating disorder-for better or for worse”) debates the different effects that reading can have on a person struggling through this very difficult illness.
The NHS website defines an eating disorder as “having an unhealthy attitude towards food, which can take over your life and make you ill”. Examples are: Anorexia Nervosa (simply not eating enough, excessive exercise, obsession over weight), Bulimia (losing control and eating a lot of food only to make yourself deliberately sick to get rid of it) and Binge eating disorder (regularly lose control of your eating and eat a large portion of food until you feel uncomfortably full and guilty). These are by no means the only forms of the disease, simply the most common.
“… 69% had sought out both fiction and non-fiction as a way of coping.”
The Independent Author (Emily Troskino) conducted a survey and found that out of 773 people who had personally experienced the illness, 69% had sought out both fiction and non-fiction as a way of coping. It’s easy to see why, the desire to slip into someone else’s life, to be reminded of a world outside your own torment; it’s like spending your life inside a bare white room and building a window to watch the carnival go by.
People like to feel seen. Be it in books, movies, T.V shows, they want to see a big and bright version of themselves achieve the impossible. They want to see they can climb the mountain, fight the dragon, get the boy and live happily ever after. When people feel invisible, when they are not properly represented the way they feel others are, it can be catastrophic.
This is one of the reasons why the people questioned in the survey found memoirs to be the most helpful form of reading. They could see their struggle through someone else’s eyes, they could see recovery and how attainable it was. They could see the way forward.
There are dozens of examples of such books, from “Not all Black girls know how to eat” to “Please eat; a mother’s plea to her son”.
Facts are another vital reason people turned to literature. One of the easiest and most deadly traps to fall into with a condition like this is to minimise it. A “but that’s not what I have mentality”, “Because my behaviour doesn’t match up”, “Because boys don’t have this”, “Because I am just being healthy”, “Because these people really suffered”. Reading these narratives helped remind people that mental illness is not a measuring stick you’re supposed to beat yourself in to silence. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s not real.
“39% of people found fiction to be harmful to their journey to recovery.”
Unfortunately there is another side to this story. The same survey concluded that 39% of people found fiction to be harmful to their journey to recovery. While fiction unrelated to their disease proved to be a wondrous form of escapism, fiction centered around or including eating disorders were found by 21% of this group to be triggering, while 19% found it to be causing obsessive reflection.
People do like to feel seen. But when that image is distorted, when it looks like you but better, it becomes a nightmare that preys on your insecurities.
Not only that but those taking part confessed to seeking out literature that would “help” the disease. They used the graphic descriptions in both fiction and non-fiction to find better ways to starve themselves and began to feel “over critical of their achievements”. An echo chamber mentality – seeking out opinions that further confirm your beliefs and thus creating an endless and destructive cycle.
“… you can’t even go to the dentist or doctor’s offices without flicking through a magazine that will tell you everything that’s wrong with you”
Though mental illness and body positivity have become much more prevalent issues in recent years we are still bombarded from all sides with ideas on how to improve, you can’t even go to the dentist or doctor’s offices without flicking through a magazine that will tell you everything that’s wrong with you; as well as what kind of scented candle matches your personality.
The research does not appear to offer a solution to this problem. The authors of the memoirs and fiction can not control how their work is perceived. And what is the alternative? Censor all mention of the disease to avoid them being mistreated as harmful self help guide? To do so would be as bad as claiming the condition does not exist. Furthermore it would undermine all the positive aspects of reading and take away from the educational aspect of these narratives.
I myself have no answers. The only way forward it seems is to make sure that those who chose to take on such heavy subject matter in their literature are aware of the responsibility their readers place upon them. To give all the facts, to not glamorise and glorify. Above all, they must always ensure that recovery is the centre point of the issue. That it is real and achievable. The stories we read, particularly as we are growing up, have the power to either shape or destroy us. Make sure its the right one.