The Problem With the Stories We Tell About Eating Disorders

When art about the subject glamorizes it, audiences pay the price.

A white book with a cutout of a scale set at zero pounds
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Over the past several years, depictions of eating disorders have become more common on-screen and in literature. Think of Lily Collins’s thin frame as she counts calories in the Netflix film To the Bone, or the young protagonist of the series Insatiable, who becomes skinny after a summer on a liquid diet. Sarai Walker’s novel Dietland is a satirical look at a woman radicalized after years of failed weight-loss attempts, and JoAnna Novak’s book I Must Have You follows a mother and daughter who both have body dysmorphia. NBC recently ordered a pilot for a sitcom starring Demi Lovato about “friends who belong to a food-issues group.” This abundance of narratives, however, has not resulted in a diversity of stories. And, unfortunately for audiences, many of these works fall into the trap of sensationalism.

Eating disorders are a vexing subject to portray. Details make for compelling art, but illustrating the particularities of disordered eating can romanticize it, offering seemingly aspirational images of slender bodies and accounts of disciplined diets. I should know—I’ve encountered this challenge in my work as a writer, and I’ve struggled with it as a reader and viewer. As a bulimic teenager in 2005, I was influenced by FX’s TV series Starved, which featured characters restricting, bingeing, and purging, sometimes in broad daylight. Many writers have analyzed how books and movies about eating disorders can help perpetuate them in audiences. Sometimes, these works also misrepresent who struggles with such conditions, misconceptions that even some dietitians share. White, rich, or middle-class cis women with anorexia aren’t the only people dealing with eating disorders. These conditions also include bulimia and binge-eating disorder, and they can affect men, people of color, and genderqueer people.

The stakes for more careful and inclusive storytelling are high, especially now. The coronavirus pandemic appears to have fueled a dramatic increase in eating disorders among adolescents. The illness is commonly exacerbated by the factors that have shaped life under COVID-19: more stress, anxiety, and isolation. Even as many countries reopen, new triggers arise, such as seemingly innocuous conversations about losing pandemic pounds; in some places, treatment has become more difficult to obtain. As such, creators have a responsibility to leave behind the romanticized imagery and archetypes that have long pervaded art on the subject. In recent years, some authors, myself included, have tried to rise to the task.

Marya Hornbacher’s 1998 memoir, Wasted, established the traditional model for writing about disordered eating more than two decades ago. The book catalogs her calorie counts and binges; in one scene, the author describes herself after a purge: “I lay sleepless. Tossing. Head pounding. Fingers swollen, throat puffed up like a bullfrog. The light flipped off, the dark and the racing thoughts flooded in. The fears. The prayers.”

Hornbacher’s clipped lyricism swipes an ornate shine over her trauma. By rendering herself at her most unwell, she also inadvertently gives readers instructions for how to maintain their illness. Although Hornbacher recovers, the most lurid parts of her journey linger in the reader’s mind far longer than the passages offering hope. In the narrative she creates, eating disorders appear to be the domain of middle-class, beautiful white women. It is not Hornbacher’s fault that so many people read her story as the only story. Nor is it her fault that so many sections of her memoir now appear gratuitous. She made readers aware of a problem that deserved more attention, and her book became a best seller not in spite of the details she chose, but because of them.

When I first started writing about eating disorders, I followed Hornbacher’s example. In essays about masculinity and body dysmorphia, I included excessive details about my purges to illustrate the challenges that people who identify as male face in receiving treatment. However, my stories modeled unhealthy behavior. Even while writing, I fell into the habits I condemned on the page.

When working on my first novel, The Atmospherians, which came out in May, I sought to do better. The book features a male character with bulimia, but I adopted the voice of his best friend, so as not to offer a first-person account of the illness. Though the book includes scenes of purging, I hoped that making the speaker a separate character would illuminate the toll these experiences take on everyone involved. In one moment, as the narrator overhears her friend purging, she laments, “The sound did hurt me; I didn’t know how to convince him to stop.”

Some of the best recent writing on eating disorders not only broadens ideas about who has them, but also chooses details carefully to show their true harm. Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy explores the author’s struggles with food and a gambling addiction as a Black man from Mississippi; throughout the book, Laymon focuses on his emotions without elaborating on his habits. In her debut novel, Cheat Day, Liv Stratman writes about a narrator with orthorexia (“clean” eating taken to an extreme). As the character grows thinner, others voice their concerns over her weight loss, and Stratman shows how a diet that initially appeared empowering evolved into a sickness. Melissa Broder’s novel Milk Fed highlights the connections between isolation and body dysmorphia. It also, however, includes repeated scenes of its protagonist purging, a reminder that writers can fall into old traps even as they tread new ground.

Jamie Hood’s debut collection about self-construction and gender identity, How to Be a Good Girl: A Miscellany, departs slightly from these works by making eating disorders mundane. Early in the book, she ironically reduces her “ED” to “one more cliché in the bucket of what someone on twitter mockingly refers to as my ‘laundry list of traumas.’” Hood, a trans woman, shows how gender dysphoria can fuel body dysmorphia. And by weaving these subjects together, her eating disorder never overtakes the narrative or appears glamorous. It is merely part of her life.

Other authors have reenvisioned eating-disorder narratives by considering them from a critical remove. In Larissa Pham’s essay collection, Pop Song: Adventures in Art and Intimacy, she writes about her writing on anorexia: “I tended to retreat to metaphor. I was a worm. It left me hollow, scoured, cleaned of mucous contents … I regret trying to accept it by making it beautiful.” Stripped of their context, these metaphors wither and decay like leaves tugged off a branch. Later in the collection, she analyzes the connections between anorexia and race through the lens of art criticism, an approach that is objectifying yet elevating.

Self-objectification can risk slipping into self-surveillance—the obsessive tracking of calories consumed, burned, and desired—as it did in Hornbacher’s Wasted. Hood and Pham find better ways to capture this feeling, using techniques that are reminiscent of Jessie Kahnweiler’s 2016 Refinery29 web series, The Skinny. Kahnweiler plays herself, and in one scene, YouTube comments about her appearance drive her to purge. However, Kahnweiler offers only a glancing shot of the act itself. For viewers in recovery, she conveys the emotional experience of having body dysmorphia without including triggering scenes; for others, she shows how innocuous comments can spur self-harm.

The series also complicates the recovery arc shown for cis white women in popular films. In the final episode, Kahnweiler admits to her mother that she is beginning to recover from her bulimia—but her mother doesn’t believe her. This reaction mirrors that of the person on Twitter who writes off Hood’s “laundry list of traumas.” In each instance, the viewer or reader is forced to confront the cruelty of such a dismissal rather than make the dismissal themselves. These stories ask us to rethink not only who suffers but also to question how we treat those who suffer.

Of course, no single work can cover every perspective. But many new writers are demonstrating that more responsible portrayals are possible—and even make for stronger art. Pham’s nuanced reckoning with her earlier sketches of anorexia show the deep pain of living with an eating disorder. She joins Hood, Laymon, Kahnweiler, and others in creating portraits—at once representative and expansive—of how race and gender shape these conditions. In this light, dangerous works like Wasted or Starved no longer seem necessary. There are better templates for writing about these experiences now—and infinite opportunities to chart new paths that will help readers connect with their bodies on the page and off.

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