I want to tell you something that may be difficult for you to understand.
When someone is desperate enough for some semblance of control in their life, or some semblance of self-worthiness, or some semblance of compliance with the expectations of the world around them, an eating disorder can look like a desirable thing.
And I know what you’re thinking: How could anyone want a mental illness?
You’re wondering how anyone could want the brittle bones and the thinning hair and the heart problems. You’re wondering why anyone would want to spend thousands of dollars on treatment and worry their family. You’re wondering, quite simply, why someone would want to forgo the pleasures and comforts of food.
All that to be thin? You may ask, Doesn’t seem worth it to me.
And while there is some level of irrationality whenever it comes to mental illness and its sufferers, there is something deeper there: it’s not about the symptoms, it’s about what they symbolize.
Someone who is truly sick, and is vulnerable to an eating disorder due to certain predispositions, will hardly bat an eye at the terrors an eating disorder can ravage on a body. Those brittle bones, thin hair, and weakened heart that terrify you? To a disordered mind, these aren’t reasons not to have an eating disorder, they’re simply signs of things they so desperately want. They symbolize self-discipline, they symbolize control, they symbolize the power to override the most basic demands of the human body.
And I know this because I’ve felt it.
As a fourteen-year-old completely lost in the world of anxiety and depression, I felt like I was completely broken. I had no apparent reason to feel sad and scared all of the time; my parents were still married and employed, I never had to wonder where my next meal was coming from or where I would sleep at night, I was smart and accomplished in school. The only reasonable conclusion I could come to was that I wasn’t self-disciplined enough to be happy. I wasn’t good enough.
I began clawing through life seeking anything at all that would make me disciplined and happy. Sports? No, I wasn’t dedicated or coordinated enough to excel there. Socially? I didn’t have the charisma or charm to make it as effortless as it looked for everyone else. Academically? I had good grades, but school gave me so much anxiety and stress that I thought I must just not be smart or disciplined enough for it to be easy.
And all the while, I channeled the frustration of this search into my body. My own flesh became the first tangible thing I could punish and correct for its lack of compliance; the soft folds of my barely-pubescent body were admonished simply for daring to exist in their round defiance of beauty standards. I came to view my body as the ultimate symbol of my shortcomings, and found it far easier to focus all my hatred onto my appearance than to continue to scrutinize the rest of my life.
I remember the moment I made the first real correlation in my head between food consumption and the way my body appeared. At first, my forgoing of enough nourishment for my body empowered me just by giving me the rush of control from turning down food I normally wouldn’t think twice about consuming. But after long enough of this, and looking into the mirror and seeing the difference in my body, it clicked in my head for the first time that I was finally doing something. Changing something. Controlling something.
That’s where the real rush came from: finally feeling like something in my life was fixable and actually being able to see the results of my actions.
And so by the time I was finally sick enough to be forced into a hospital, I could see all the ugly things they try to use to steer you away from anorexia. I could see the pointy bones and blue fingernails and soft, downy hair on my back. I could see the grey skin and feel the creaky joints and smell the bad breath. None of that made me want to recover, made me suddenly realize that I was hurting my body and had to stop.
No, it just made me feel like I was finally in control, because this was a body I had destroyed all on my own.
But instead of seeing it as destruction, I saw it as creation.
The disordered body becomes a symbol not for health or lack thereof, but for self-discipline and control over one’s life. And when a disordered person is placed in treatment, clinging onto things like an emaciated body may seem irrational and even stupid to the outside world while seeming like the only way to feel safe and secure for the suffering individual.
Knowing all of this, I want you to understand why I struggle with the majority of media surrounding eating disorders and the recovery after.
There is a very thin line between accurately portraying what it is like to have an eating disorder, and glamorizing it. What may appear terrifying and seem to act as a “scared straight” for those struggling with anorexia may not appear the same to someone already in the grip of the illness. Hours of footage of people struggling to eat, looking sadly at their ravaged bodies, and engaging in other disordered behaviors may seem sad and scary enough to label a piece of media as trying to expose the reality of an ED while at the same time acting as “pro-ana porn” for those vulnerable to the illness who are seeing things through an entirely different lens than others (and oftentimes, the creators of the media).
As someone who knows what it is like to see the world through the eyes of an anorexic, I can say with confidence that many sufferers of the disease consume as much eating disorder-related material as they can get their hands on for a few reasons (and none of them are healthy). They like seeing how other disordered people live, and like taking “tricks” from them (I remember realizing for the first time while watching a documentary about inpatient treatment that drinking ice water supposedly burned more calories than warm water, and thinking it was genius). They like comparing themselves to other disordered people, to reassure themselves that they are “disordered enough” to consider themselves truly in control. They like idolizing those who are more disordered than themselves and their bodies.
These are all reasons why I’m frankly tired of seeing film after documentary after TV series after memoir filled to the brim with disordered behaviors.
I completely understand how cathartic and healing it can be to write down the horrors of your disorder, and I completely understand how creators of these types of media can see it as “exposing” the ugliness of a disease. But what needs to be taken into consideration is the uniqueness of this particular mental illness: it is competitive and it thrives on obsessing over anything and everything remotely related to the disease itself.
There are are enough films that spend an hour or more just showing how anorexics live in their disorder. There are enough films showing exactly how girls destroy their bodies. There are enough films that could, when taken into the wrong hands, serve as nothing more than a guidebook to someone only just beginning to fall prey to the false sense of control an eating disorder promises.
And no matter how may times a producer or director writes a statement about how these types of media are supposed to be deterrents from harmful behaviors, it will never change the fact that intention rarely means as much as how it is actually perceived. No matter how “well intentioned” these films are, there will still be (literally) sick, disordered people who completely disregard the film’s purpose as a deterrent and will view it in their own, disordered light.
Which leads me to ask, why do we need to put more of this media that will simply be coopted by a disease out into the world?
We don’t need another film that could be easily viewed as pro-ana by a person enwrapped in their disorder. We don’t need another film that spends more time focusing on the attributes of a disorder than how someone can over come it. We need films that talk more about recovery than the disease itself, and show that it is possible (and even worth it).
We need to stop romanticizing eating disorders, even if it is inadvertently and unintentional.
That’s when things will start to get better.