Even though I’ve considered writing a book about my own experiences with an eating disorder, I can see the potential harm these kinds of books can cause.
Books on mental health can provide readers with an accurate portrayal of eating disorder. They can even provide hope by sharing how they overcame their struggles.
However, it’s not easy to write your story without getting into the nitty-gritty details of the disorder. One thing in particular that can be harmful to readers is focusing on numbers.
I recall one memoir I read early on in my illness. As I turned each page, the protagonist’s weight became lower and lower. This depiction of anorexia was exciting to my young mind and although it certainly didn’t cause my eating disorder, it didn’t help either. It solidified my belief that it was possible to lose a significant amount of weight in a short time span.
The truth of the matter is that eating disorder memoirs that focus on numbers are indeed triggering. Even for people who don’t have eating disorders.
What do the experts say?
That’s my own opinion. But the research on this tells a similar story…
A 2015 study by Shaw & Homewood sought to explore whether eating disorder memoirs are helpful or hindering to eating disordered readers. They identified concepts readers took away from the book and the negative and positive outcomes of these.
On the plus side, memoirs can provide readers with a sense of validation that they are not alone in this struggle. Reading about someone’s triumph can bring them renewed hope. These books can even provide a type of social support that many readers don’t get due to the secretive nature of eating disorders. Books can also reiterate negative consequences from having an eating disorder and encourage the reader to seek help.
On the other hand, many readers declared that they began to emulate patterns of disordered eating after reading an eating disorder memoir.
One participant in the study commented, “If they were more sick than I was at the time, then I may have seen it as they were just better anorexics than me. Therefore, I’m just a pathetic attention seeker. I have to lose a lot more weight before I seek help”.
This goes to show that memoirs can backfire. That particular reader was experiencing negative social comparisons from reading the same book that had been helpful to another person in recovery.
What does this mean for you?
There are obviously real strengths and valid concerns when reading or writing memoirs on eating disorders. One overlooked benefit in eating disorder memoirs might be for the family members or friends of sufferers. Reading memoirs can unveil the mystery of what someone with an eating disorder struggles with and give them ideas for how to support them.
So, what does this mean for you? Well, I don’t think there’s necessarily a “right” answer in this debate. I believe that we all know ourselves best. And if in doubt, you can always get an eating disorder memoir as a gift for a loved one.