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Lithium Having the wrong eating disorder

Jul. 5, 2019
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Collage by Alyssa Kissoondath

Watching To the Bone felt horrible. My body felt cold, my stomach felt a bit nauseous, and I constantly felt the need to touch my arms, the area of skin and fat that meets my side. Though I’ve never been anorexic, I have suffered from bulimia in the past and still struggle with recovery, as it is a difficult and nonlinear process. So To the Bone’s portrayal of anorexia—paired with several relatable, funny, love-filled characters and plot lines—made for an uncomfortable watch.

Viewing films and TV shows that discuss anorexia isn’t triggering for me in the way that it might be for someone who has actually dealt with anorexia, but it does create a different sense of guilt. When I look at mainstream film and television, there’s very little representation of bulimia for people like me to watch, learn from, and relate to. It makes me feel like my experience is invalid and incorrect, outside of what is normal and accepted.

Anorexia is not a catch-all narrative for eating disorder, despite the popularity of shows like To The Bone and Skins or restrictive eating encouragement in pop culture. Aside from single episodes on Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars where Blair Waldorf and Hanna Marin respectively are shown to have bulimia, mainstream media aimed at teenagers fails to include bulimia as a central focus.

Just this imbalance in representation was enough for me to think that I didn’t have the right kind of eating disorder. I hated my body’s need to overeat not only because of my bulimic mentality, but also because I saw young anorexic girls on Instagram pages and TV shows and thought, “Why can’t I just stop eating?”

The desperation and guilt created from this belief in my head pushed me further into cycles of bulimia. I hated my own illness—film and TV made it seem as though people would judge me not for having an eating disorder, but for having bulimia. I felt anxious, constantly panicked about what I looked like and how if I could just stop eating, then I would be happy. I wanted to not eat because I wished I was anorexic, but I couldn’t because I was bulimic. I existed with crippling self-hatred and nothing to turn to for help.

Criticisms of To The Bone harped on how this “familiar narrative” of anorexia recovery was outdated and insensitive. But there’s no familiar narrative for bulimics looking for representation in media. There’s no familiar narrative that someone with bulimia could turn to in order to feel recognized, noticed, validated.

Depiction of bulimia is infinitely more “difficult,” obviously. After all, bulimia isn’t as easy to romanticize as anorexia. It’s easy to have a character not eat—you just don’t show them eating and make them extremely skinny. But how do you portray bulimia? How do you portray purging? This collective idea of anorexia as a disease affecting beautiful, tortured young women doesn’t quite apply to bulimia, which is seen as far more disgusting. The lack of acceptance of bulimia in popular culture—the constant and singular narrative of young, skinny teenage girls eating a hundred calories a day or less—made me feel even more guilty about being bulimic.

With my guilt also came frustration at how the portrayal of eating disorders interact with the portrayal of women. Female characters are often created to be passive and fragile, powerless and completely happy with it. While fictional anorexic women can be depicted as passive because of the inaction (not eating) associated with the illness, bulimia stands in direct opposition to traditional views of women. The extremely aggressive actions of purging and binging constitute an entirely different kind of eating disorder—an active, hostile, and violent one, entirely anti-feminine. Not only did I feel a sense of self-loathing because of my inability to stop eating, but also because of how I understood my identity as a woman. 

Seeing so many movies and TV shows about anorexia—their portrayal of emaciated yet beautiful young women—made me hate my eating disorder even more. I didn’t feel like I was skinny enough, and I tried to force myself to “switch” to anorexia because I thought that if I was going to have an eating disorder, I might as well have the better one. I specifically hated my bulimia, not my eating disorder.

Media companies certainly grapple with eating disorder portrayals to begin with, trying to balance the line between accurate and triggering plots. Understanding the boundaries of representation requires uncomfortable dialogue between those affected by bulimia and the directors, producers, and screenwriters in the media industry. But that discomfort doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any representation at all. The fact that there are so many programs about anorexia and so few about bulimia tells those struggling with and recovering from bulimia that their eating disorder is disgusting, unworthy of attention, and a secret of which to be ashamed. Tactful, complex, and honest depictions of bulimia and recovery are absolutely necessary to support those struggling with bulimia and make us feel seen.

As mental health becomes more of a mainstream discussion, eating disorders need to take up space in that discussion. That includes all kinds of eating disorders, from anorexia to bulimia to binge-eating disorder to orthorexia (an obsession with healthy eating), with the goal of making mental health discussion more inclusive not just to individuals, but to the illnesses themselves. With more critical reflection on how we frame mental illness and what we don’t like to discuss, those struggling with underrepresentation may finally feel comfortable with honesty, an essential brick of the structure of recovery.