Writing Eating Disorders
So, I was sitting here thinking about what I could possibly write up a post about. Then it hit me: why not write about something personal/near and dear to my heart. Reading many stories that have dealt with the issue of eating disorders (mostly fanfiction), I have noticed that sometimes people don’t completely grasp what eating disorders are or the differences between them. So I’m here to help.
This was longer than I thought it would be, so I’ve placed it all under a ‘read more’.
First things first, it is necessary to point out that an eating disorder is exactly that: a disorder. It is not a behavioral problem. If you need a refresher on what exactly an eating disorder is, you can click the link found in the list at the end of this post.
We’ll start with a list of the different disorders:
- Anorexia Nervosa: Many people with anorexia nervosa see themselves as overweight, even when they are clearly underweight. Eating, food, and weight control tend to become obsessions. People with anorexia nervosa typically weight themselves repeatedly, eat very small quantities of only certain foods, and portion their food carefully.
— — Anorexia nervosa is characterized by: extreme thinness; a relentless pursuit of thinness; an unwillingness to maintain a normal/healthy weight; intense fear of gaining weight; a distorted body image, a self-esteem heavily influence by perceptions of body weight/shape, or a denial of the severity of low body weight; lack of menstruation among girls and woman; extremely restricted eating.
— — Symptoms include: thinning of the bones; brittle hair and nails; dry and yellowish skin; growth of fine hair all over the body; severe constipation; brain damage; mild anemia and muscle wasting/weakness; low blood pressure, slowed breathing and pulse; multiorgan failure; lethargy, sluggishness, or feeling tired all the time; infertility; and more.
- Bulimia Nervosa: Unlike anorexia nervosa, people with bulimia nervosa usually maintain what is considered a healthy or normal weight, while some are slightly overweight. But they still possess the fear of gaining weight, the desperation to lose weight, and they are intensely unhappy with their body size/shape. More of the time, bulimic behavior is done secretly because it is often accompanied by feeling of disgust or shame. The binge-eating and purging cycle happens anywhere from several times a week to many times a day.
— — Bulimia nervosa is characterized by: frequent episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food and feeling a lack of control over these episodes. This binge-eating is followed by behavior that compensates for the overeating: forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives/diuretics, excessive exercise, fasting, or a lethal combination of these behaviors.
— — Symptoms include: chronically inflamed/sore throat; worn tooth enamel, increasingly sensitive or decaying teeth as a result of exposure to stomach acid; swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw area; severe dehydration due to purging of fluids; intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse; acid reflux disorder; gastrointestinal problems; electrolyte imbalance which can lead to a heart attack.
- Binge-eating Disorder: With binge-eating disorder, a person loses control over their eating. Unlike bulimia nervosa, periods of binge-eating are not followed by purging, excessive exercise, or fasting. As a result, people with this disorder are over overweight or obese. They tend to experience guilt, shame, and distress about their binge-eating, which can lead to more binge-eating.
- Though anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are the two most known eating disorders, there are others, including anorexia athletica, over exercise, overeating, night eating, orthorexia, and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). If you would like to read more about the conditions listed here, you can visit this site, among many others.
One thing that I would like to stress before we get into how to write a character with an eating disorder (or how not to) is that men can have eating disorders, too. This is not only something that plagues women. The causes of the disorders may differ by gender, but it is possible for a male to have an eating disorder.
There are a few common misconceptions regarding those who have eating disorders:
- "They must think they’re fat." While this may be the starting point for some people with the disorders, it is not the only reason. A popular cause of eating disorders is control. Often, people find their lives getting out of control to the point where they can no longer deal with the constant changes and uncertainties around them. They get to a point where the only thing they can control is how much food goes into their bodies. The control can then escalate into an obsession.
- Eating disorders are just about food. The disorders aren’t really about food. They’re about the feelings of the person who possesses the disorder. However, food tends to be the closest “drug” with the easiest access. There are always other problems going on behind the scenes of a person with an eating disorder.
- You can never be completely free from an eating disorder once you’ve had one. Often, a patient with an eating disorder will here from friends, family, or even their therapist/doctor that they will be able to manage their addiction, but they will never be rid of it. That’s not true. Yes, you will always remember the pain and trouble you went through, but you can be healed. It’s one of those situations that can be forgiven, but never forgotten.
When writing characters with eating disorders, try not to play into those stereotypes. Your character may experience triggers throughout their daily life, perhaps seeing someone skinnier than them (or than they think they are), a friend who weighs less than them (they’ve seen the numbers), a person around them making comments about someone who is overweight, or any other number of things. Which trigger is used is all up to your character’s situation.
There are always people around that you could talk to if you need personal insight into someone with an eating disorder, although keep in mind that someone with an eating disorder may be denial or not want to talk about it. If you have any other questions, you can always send me a message or make your way to Google for a little help.
- National Institute of Mental Health: What are Eating Disorders?
- Eating Disorders in Popular Television (if you want to see how others have portrayed eating disorders)
- Binge Eating Disorder Association
- Eating Disorders Coalition
- Eating Disorders Anonymous (this link will lead you to their amazing page on recovery)
- Helping Someone With An Eating Disorder
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