Raising Awareness Without Further Feeding into Stereotypes

When I was younger and I first became ill, went through treatment, and the whole shebang, I toyed with the idea of writing a book about my experiences one day. As a teenager I began reading memoirs about other people's experiences with eating disorders and I felt both comforted in knowing that I was not alone and challenged with the idea that suddenly the thing that had become a large part of my identity was no longer just mine.

As I've gotten older I've become much less attached to the idea of writing any kind of memoir. I do write about my experiences (as in the case of this blog), but I try to do so thoughtfully for the reason that there are ways in which detailing one's experiences can (although not necessarily) add to unhelpful stereotypes about eating disorders.

On the one hand writing can be a helpful way to explore experiences and share them. Struggle is the backbone of many storylines because it provides the opportunity to explore some of the most basic aspects of being human that we all share: the hardships and lessons to be learned. Writing can serve as a means to make meaning out of (and cope with) the pain that life can sometimes bring, but the other side of finding the beauty in pain is the danger of making pain seem beautiful. That kind of framing of pain and struggle can lead to some dangerous places, namely romanticization.

Romanticization

I always go back to Leslie Jamison's essay on Female Pain and this idea of being a "wound dweller." In the essay Jamison delves into the idea of pain as performance and how that pain is still real pain even if it is in some sense performed (and based on seeking attention), but balances this perspective with commentary around the idea of pain as something trendy to try on, that it makes one interesting. It's an excellent essay for anyone who has time to explore it.

There was a period of time when I was deeply absorbed in being ill. There have been other times in my life when my illness was all-absorbing, but this experience is slightly (but importantly) different than being absorbed in illness. When I was obsessed with my own sickness it wasn't a struggle, it was something I walked hand-in-hand with although I wasn't always aware I was doing this. I was proud of being sick, I felt it made me special. This was a stage in my life where I would read and re-read Kafka's "The Hunger Artist" imagining that I too was some kind of misunderstood artist. There was a sense of superiority there that was dangerous to flirt with. It is argued whether Kafka was celebrating the artist or making an ironic comment on artistic pretensions: I tend to think the latter now, but when I first read the piece it suited my biases to believe the former. (Interesting aside, some researchers have suggested Kafka may have suffered from an eating disorder).

This idea of the tortured and misunderstood artist is not new and it has been applied to many artists throughout history: Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, Virginia Wolf, Amy Winehouse, Sylvia Plath and so on. Comedian Jacqueline Novak tackles this idea in her book How to Weep in Public: Feeble Offerings on Depression.  It's not that these people didn't struggle with serious mental health issues or that they didn't contribute great works of art or that those two things might have been connected, but there is a fine line between finding meaning in struggle and celebrating suffering to the point that it becomes trendy. I doubt very much that Van Gogh or Amy Winehouse were at their most creative and productive in their lowest moments and I wonder what paintings or music there might have been if their lives hadn't ended so prematurely.

Still it has become common to see people revel in this idea that suffering makes their lives significant. I understand this because I've done this and perhaps some of it is related to the age and stage of life someone is in (adolescence transitioning into young adulthood, when you're trying to find your place in the world). I want to phrase this carefully because I don't mean to imply that exploring personal pain is wrong, I think it is a very human thing to do, but I do think there is a difference between noticing pain or expressing it and setting up camp in the thick of it.

Essentially, I don't think one necessarily has to be tortured to be an artist and I think that idea is dangerous. Suffering doesn't make you significant, sometimes you can find a lesson in life's pain sure... or beauty, other times it just hurts.

What I have seen with the romanticization of eating disorders is this tendency to frame the experience in a particular aesthetic: delicate, frail, femininity, paleness, self-sacrifice, purity, a sensitive nature and attunement to suffering that becomes so unbearable the person must reject life, etc. There have been changes over time to this stereotype, it has a less religious focus nowadays, but some of those nuances remain. If you look in "pro" spaces a lot of the images are of thin, young, white, middle-class women. While eating disorders do affect this population, this imagery ignores other populations and builds up the stereotype that eating disorders only look like this.

I remember seeing a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ("The Danger of a Single Story") in which she described growing up in Nigeria and writing stories with white protagonists and settings in the snow because those were the stories she had read and thus the stories she thought she had to write. I think a similar thing happens when people write about their eating disorders or express the experience in artistic forms. People are more willing to write about what is socially acceptable (even if it's not entirely acknowledged that it's seen as "good") than to write about other aspects of eating disorders. For example, people are more willing to talk about restrictive behaviours and/or over-exercise because our society celebrates those; even though anorexia nervosa is one of the least common eating disorders (NEDIC Statistics), it's the predominant diagnosis described or portrayed in the media. This is something that adds to people's sense that they aren't "sick enough" to deserve help, it's because they have an image of what an eating disorder looks like and they don't believe they "qualify."

If you look at the titles of most memoirs on eating disorders, the phrasing is important. "Unbearable Lightness," "Wasted," "To The Bone," "Paperweight," "A Trick of the Light" "Empty," "Slim to None," the list goes on. These have a romanticized aspect to them which is understandable as the purpose is to sell the item to people and there's something darkly fascinating about the topic when phrased in a certain way, for example, Kafka's "Hunger Artist." This was a real thing where people would attend "freak shows" in the 19th and 20th centuries. That kind of twisted fascination still exists, just in different forms and it capitalized on if it will sell a book, movie, or television show.

It's much less romantic to talk about self-induced vomiting, bingeing whether in response to restriction or as a behaviour in and of itself, clumps of hair in the shower drain, the consequences of laxative abuse, fatphobia, severe constipation, rotting teeth, using a walker by age 40, infertility, cardiac arrest, uterine prolapse, esophageal cancer caused by constant exposure to stomach acid, destroying relationships, the pain of watching someone you love suffer and not being able to save them from themselves, having to leave work or school because you can no longer concentrate long enough to read a sentence, spending vast amounts of money on foods to binge on, feeling such intense discomfort in your body... Again, the list goes on and on.

I think it's important that we do talk about, write about, and express experiences (especially challenging experiences, experiences that showcase difficult emotions and that these are a normal part of life), but it's important to reflect on how we are expressing these experiences. That self-reflection takes practice and it certainly won't be a perfect process. It starts with simply asking ourselves how we might also be contributing to unhelpful stereotypes when we speak, write, or create art around our experiences.

The other issue that stuck out for me when I was thinking about developing the content of this post was privilege. Something very relevant in this day and age; it's important to look at it here too. 

Privilege

Going back to Chimamanda Adichie's TED talk on the dangers of a single story I am forced to face my own privilege and the fact that my story doesn't really need to be told any more than it already has. That's not to say my experiences aren't important, they obviously are to me and the people in my life, but there is very little that would be useful for me to detail, at least in typical ways (such as writing a book). There are other things I can write about and share that might be more useful in breaking down stereotypes and so I aim to express those things as best I can.

It is difficult to acknowledge my own privilege sometimes, especially when it relates to my eating disorder. For example, while I do not feel comfortable in my body, I cannot deny that my body is considered more socially acceptable and faces less stigmatization than others. The fact that I have a diagnosis that has been recognized by healthcare professionals is also a form of privilege despite the fact that having a diagnosis of this nature is not necessarily a good thing in and of itself. I also must acknowledge that I am white, I am middle class, I am young and I've had my eating disorder from a young age. I fit all the stereotypes. Even so, I've only ever felt invalidated by the stereotypical representations of eating disorders I have seen so I can only imagine what others must feel. It feels a bit hypocritical to be shouting from the rooftops about diversity... but that's why I am excited for this blog and for VIVED to be a space that others begin to feel more comfortable in, because it's the diversity of our voices that is needed if we want to change the way eating disorders are thought of and talked about.

- S. Ritchey

Shaely RitcheyComment