How to Write a Character with an Eating Disorder: Advice by a Survivor
I made a vlog covering the same information. Blog or vlog: pick your poison.
Before I start this, I feel it crucial to repeat a thousand times that I will be discussing my own experiences with an eating disorder. If you have or had an eating disorder and think you are not able to listen to me talk openly about the sensitive topic, there will always be another post another day. Just take care of yourself. If you are going to read the post, please proceed with caution.
Nonetheless, this post will specifically be advice to people who have not had an eating disorder on how to write fictional characters with an eating disorder.
Do your research
This may sound obvious, but it is repeated often because it is so important. There are so many things someone who has not had an eating disorder wouldn’t know about. There’s the common slang people with eating disorders use everyday. Some people personify their illness in an attempt of coping.
Talk to survivors
This is a given, which is why I’m here. But seriously, if you are going to write such a serious topic it’s crucial you talk to people who have suffered from it. Asides from acting as a sensitivity reader, you can know the nuances to help make the writing believable, which leads me to my next point…
Eating disorders have lot more under the tip of the iceberg
Eating disorders aren’t just the symptoms we find on WebMD. There’s just so much more that survivors go through that someone without an eating disorder just would not know about.
For example, I’ll use myself. I pick my lips when I’m anxious. This habit originated as an attempt to hide my mouth when I was eating. Additionally, when I was super ill and skinny, my lips were so chapped because I was so dehydrated. My lips were bloody and flaky, not a good look.
If I didn’t tell you why I pick my lips, no one would know about it. Someone might assume I’m biting my nails. Someone might assume my lips are chapped because I play the saxophone. No one on the outside would think my lips were chapped because I was starving myself.
Know how a treatment plan is made
This is more of a pet peeve. It irks me to see writers not understand the difference from a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, and a counselor. This hits home for me because I went so long not getting the help I needed because I was seeing the wrong people. If I had one person just tell me that the four titles aren’t synonymous, I can’t imagine how my present would’ve panned out.
Eating disorders are a competitive illness
I think this is something someone would have to witness it to recognize it. So Imma do my best to try and explain it. People with eating disorders are often competing with one another for how bad their illness is. When you go into group, you’d see subtleties of people being like “I’ve been hospitalized six times. You?” or when you’re in a home and they feed each person, each person is eying the others dish. It’s competitive not just with trying to be thinner than the other but also trying to see who has it worse.
Food consumes peoples’ lives
I don’t know how else to say it but eating disorders are there every second of the day. It’s absolutely horrific. I don’t mean to say that people with eating disorders don’t have other priorities because obviously they do, but the overwhelming factor is that food is consuming their lives to the point of destruction. It sucks to think of food every second of the day but that’s how it is. Food is terrifying and it’s everywhere.
Eating disorders don’t just affect a certain type of person
They do. They affect boys, the elderly, people of color, people from every country from every span of the world. It doesn’t just affect white girls from middle-upper class, obviously being a white girl with an eating disorder doesn’t make the suffering any less serious. But if say your character is going into treatment, they’re going to see people from all walks of life. They might even be surprised. I’m just trying to say that implying that eating disorders affect only one type of person is hurtful to those who don’t fit that mold, and could lead them to believe that they can’t be sick.
Someone with an eating disorder might not want to read your work and that’s okay
Survivors might not want to read your work. It’s not an insult about your writing. It isn’t even saying that your writing is insensitive. Every person is on their own recovery journey and where they are, they might not be ready to consume material that relates to a topic that is still affecting them.
I went through a period where I couldn’t even say the word ‘anorexia’ aloud. I couldn’t hear it. If anyone even said it, I’d leave the room. Mind you, this was when I was eating three meals a day and hadn’t weighed myself for months.
Today, I am able to talk about it openly. But as for consuming entertainment that deals with those topics, I think I’ve read one book that touched on the subject and I wasn’t a fan. Not for the way they handled eating disorders but because of the writing and pacing. The second was To the Bone, a Netflix film about eating disorders and that had some controversy, but I liked it. I did. But afterwards, I had to be hyper-vigilant about my behavior because just being showed what I went through is a potential trigger.
Just don’t take it personally if a survivor is not interested in reading your work. They might just be doing it to protect themselves.