Trigger warning: eating disorders

More celebrities openly discuss their struggles with eating disorders than ever before, including Jameela Jamil, Jane Fonda, Camila Mendes and Zayn Malik. This willingness to share their stories demonstrates that the people leading the national discussion on eating disorders (unfortunately, this discussion often happens through media) have begun to shift away from their focus on triggering topics.

For example, the body size discussion in the now infamous Oprah Winfrey interview with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (extra trigger warning for this link, it’s that bad).

By approaching these conversations with more nuance and accuracy, the media can function as a critical component in raising awareness instead of acting against the interests of those suffering from an eating disorder.

Many organizations are working toward improving the presentation of eating disorders in popular media and raising awareness about how eating disorder patients engage with media.

The goal of the National Eating Disorder Association is to raise awareness about eating disorders by educating the public and getting lifesaving resources to people who need them. In 2021, the organization’s focus is the real-world impact of eating disorders on marginalized communities from all backgrounds struggling with eating disorders.

As someone recovering from anorexia nervosa binge/purge type myself, the issue hits close to home, and sequential art was my savior during recovery. Throughout my ongoing recovery, the comic book heroes have come to life to save another lost soul, just as they do in the comics themselves. They essentially saved me from me.

Yes, these fictional stories were often imperfect at face value, but they still mattered to me and aided in my recovery. That’s why it’s so important to me to never be quiet about it again.

X-Men Classic cover for "Reign Storm"

What Are Eating Disorders?

Disordered eating is normalized today, as our culture has become more preoccupied with fad diets and healthy eating. The phrase “disordered eating” describes a range of irregular eating behaviors whether or not a person’s symptoms warrant an eating disorder diagnosis.

Either way, many of these eating concerns require attention and treatment as unhealthy eating patterns can turn into one of the most fatal mental health problems. In fact, anorexia nervosa has a mortality rate of around 10 percent; however, why this is true is complicated. While many people die from starvation and metabolic collapse, there’s also a higher rate of suicide among women with eating disorders than most other mental health conditions.

However, women aren’t alone in feeling pressure to fit an ideal body type. Eating disorders impact all genders, including men. Despite increased awareness that eating disorders impact everyone (it’s really not only a young, rich, white girl disease), there’s a limited amount of research looking into men with eating disorders.

Today, the “cloud of shame for men with eating disorders still exists, although the visibility and access to resources are much better,” according to eating disorder researcher Roberto Olivardia of Harvard Medical School. Although men make up as many as one in three people who suffer from eating disorders, they only make up approximately one in 10 patients.

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The public is poorly educated on eating disorders, believing that they’re a lifestyle choice, but they’re actually treatable mental health problems. This misinformation has real consequences on people’s ability to get help. It seems many people are still not getting the treatment they need, and media can either help or hurt the goal of people recovering.

One way for both patients and the public to learn more about these serious and often fatal illnesses is to learn about them through either fictionalized stories or autobiographical accounts of people’s experiences of living with an eating disorder. Some research suggests that media literacy can improve self-esteem and body image in eating disorder sufferers, where comic books come in.

Media Literacy and Treating Eating Disorders 

There’s been limited success in using media literacy to improve young women’s self-esteem and body image. According to the research, it’s possible to use existing media to engage people with the idea that print models and photographs are altered, making them unrealistic depictions of the human body.

One eating disorder organization, Bulimia.com, even used Adobe Photoshop to show what major comic book characters would like if they weren’t touched up (to drive home the point).

Other studies have found it (somewhat) effective to provide people with a new framework for interpreting the media images and messages, including creating your own alter ego. For example, a heartwarming story of a child with a medical condition makes it impossible to swallow solid food, Mighty Matthew, who inspires me.

I also have a hard time with solid food because the eating disorder changed how my body processes food. It’s those kinds of stories that can bring the community together. Without further ado, here are five comics about the experience of living with and recovering from an eating disorder.

Cover of Ink in Water, which centers on eating disorders.

“Ink in Water” by Lacy J. Davis and Jim Kettner 

I never said to myself, “Hey, I think I’ll just stop eating.” I stopped because no matter what I ate, it felt like a gut of BURNING COALS. It was better to just be EMPTY. –Lacy J. Davis

Ink in Water is an autobiographical look at the author’s experience of struggling with and overcoming an eating disorder. While this graphic novel deals with the dark subject of anorexia nervosa, it’s still funny in parts, showing that eating disorder patients are more than the illness that sometimes takes over. As the artist described in an interview with Razorcake, “It’s more punks getting their sh*t together in their 20s.”

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Through the artist’s use of deep inky details against a muted gray background, this graphic novel speaks to the painful, internal and physical experience of living with an eating disorder. Like Lacy J. Davis, the eating disorder eventually gutted me, except for me, a gut of burning coals is what remains after recovery.

Cover for Meat and Bone by Kat Verhoeven.

“Meat and Bone” by Kat Verhoeven

I can’t stop. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. –Kat Verhoeven 

Meat and Bone, originally published as a webcomic, is one of the few stories centered on the queer experience of an eating disorder. The storyline follows a group of young queers who move into an apartment to start anew and is told from the point of view of Anne, a café barista struggling with negative body image.

After meeting her new neighbor Marshall, her deep-seated body dysmorphic disorder begins to manifest as she falls into old habits.

In an interview with Comics Alliance, Kat Verhoeven said, “They contrast each other, are attracted to each other, can’t help but influence each other for better and worse. While they’re spiraling around one another, the rest of the cast is pulled along in the gravity of all that’s happening, tangled up in their own messy romances and friendships and bodies.”

In Meat and Bone, the supporting cast is also struggling, and they function as different perspectives on the pervasiveness of body image in a person’s life because how a person feels about their body can affect everything, from romance to work to just existing in this world.

So, it’s important to remember that eating disorders are more than extreme diets. They’re extreme ways of finding control in an environment that seems insurmountable.

Cover of Lighter Than My Shadow, which centers on eating disorders.

“Lighter Than My Shadow” by Katie Green 

Getting better is so inherently personal, and everyone must choose it for themselves. –Katie Green

Lighter Than My Shadow is an autobiographical graphic novel about living and recovering from anorexia. According to Katie Green, the story is “a trip into the black heart of a taboo illness, an exposure of those who are so weak they prey on the weak and an inspiration to anybody who believes in the human power to endure toward happiness.”

This story begins in Green’s childhood. Eating disorders are common in children and adolescents, and oftentimes, children don’t recognize that the behavior of restricting food intake is unhealthy or that their perception of their body is distorted.

Especially in kids, an eating disorder is about more than weight. It’s an unhealthy way to cope with emotional problems, perfectionism and lack of control. As a young kid, I remember being manipulated to eat through things like “clean your plate club” and statements like “children are starving in Africa,” just like we see happen to Green.

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Given that family dynamics play a significant role in developing an eating disorder, seeing this part of the creator’s story is incredibly impactful.

Cover of She-Hulk, which centers on eating disorders.

“She-Hulk” by Mariko Tamaki, Jahnoy Lindsay, Federico Blee and Travis Lanham 

Things I can’t explain. Like standing here. Outside myself. Watching. –Jen Walters 

In Mariko Tamaki‘s She-Hulk run, Jen Walters has problems controlling her Hulk persona, and her trauma and internalized anger take center stage. The Marvel Comics writer told Bitch Media that the 2015 story is about one woman’s struggle with grief and post-traumatic stress.

“The transformation that used to make her [Jennifer Walters] feel so strong is now connected to fear and pain,” Tamaki said. “The point that I’m trying to get at is that all those things that you think make you weak are things that make you strong. You can’t run away from feeling sad or angry. A woman’s pain is something that makes her strong, and so [the comic is] ultimately about trying to get back to that.”

Although She-Hulk is a story of pain, grief, anger and post-traumatic stress disorder, it still speaks to the experience of living with anorexia. Tamaki said, “I think any kind of mental state is a world in itself, right? When you’re depressed, you’re living in a world of depression, and I really wanted to get into that.”

Traditionally, Jen Walters is depicted as being comfortable with her transformation. Her trauma has changed her and her relationship with her body … It is something that speaks to me…

Cover for In Clothes Called Fat, which centers on eating disorders.

“In Clothes Called Fat” by Moyoco Anno 

It’s like I’m wearing a leotard of flesh that can never be removed. –Noko

Shukan Josei, a weekly newspaper for women, first serialized In Clothes Called Fat in 1997. In today’s world, women are expected to make their appearance the principal part of their identity, and the impact of that on the individual can be extremely damaging.

The main character, Noko Hanazawa, deals with self-esteem issues and defines herself by the way she looks, a habit that impacts every aspect of her existence. Moyoco Anno delves into the experiences that can lead a person to disordered eating through episodes from Noko’s life.

Readers are taken through her internal thought process as we follow her relationship with her boyfriend, the bullying she experiences at work, and her abortive attempts at self-control.

This manga deals with compulsive over-eating that eventually turns into bulimia. After a dietician describes Noko by saying, “Her soul is obese,” she learns to control her body through a compulsion to vomit. Anno allows the reader into Noko’s thoughts, giving us insight into how a person’s negative sense of self can morph into an eating disorder.

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All these comics and graphic novels show that my story isn’t unique and that art is a common way for people to deal with these challenges. Do any fictional characters help you through your recovery? If you are still struggling and need immediate help, check out the National Eating Disorders Association’s Resource Page HERE.

Article written by Rebecca Kaplan

This article was originally published on 7/28/21.

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