Guest Post by Jessica Meats [trigger warning for discussion of eating disorders].
Representation is an important subject when thinking about books and writing. It’s something I’m trying to do better at in my own books and something I try to encourage through buying books which represent diversity. One particular type of representation is close to my heart and that’s representation of mental health issues, particularly eating disorders. There are some great books out there about eating disorders, but it’s very rare to find a book that includes these issues without it being the whole focus of the plot.
I thought I’d found one recently. I was reading a young adult novel about a group of teenagers caught up in a war and the protagonist showed definite signs of an eating disorder. The words ‘eating disorder’ or ‘anorexia’ were never used explicitly, but the protagonist showed definite anorexic behaviours. She severely restricted what she ate, she felt physically incapable of eating certain types of food, she had a strong desire to be thin to a point where other characters thought she looked unhealthy. It was even mentioned that she’d been in therapy around her refusal to eat.
Normally, I would be thrilled to find a book like this. A serious issue is there, but it’s in the background; the plot and the characters are focused on other things. It’s important that people who struggle with these issues find mirrors for themselves in fiction. However, then came the problem. The character got better. Just like that. At a point about halfway through the book, the character had a moment of revelation in which she realised she was starving and after that point, she was perfectly fine. For the rest of the book, there wasn’t a single sign of the eating issues which had been a significant part of her character up to that point.
This is dangerous.
This is a bad representation of eating disorders and it can send a very dangerous message to readers. It can reinforce the message to non-sufferers that an eating disorder is a choice, that it’s just teenagers being silly and they should just get over it and start eating again. There are people out there who think anorexia is just an extreme diet, or that eating disorders are a fad. Those people, reading this book, will get confirmation of their beliefs.
Worse than that, it gives the same message to the people who suffer eating disorders. Eating disorders are a form of mental illness. They’re an illness the affects people physically and psychologically. And they’re a disease with a long and slow recovery period. Sometimes, people spend years trying to recover from an eating disorder. Sometimes, people spend the rest of their lives fighting patterns of behaviour that were part of the disorder. Sometimes, recovery seems to be going well and there’s a moment of relapse. All of that can come with a dose of guilt.
It’s really easy for an eating disorder sufferer to blame themselves, particularly when they have bad days during recovery. In the recovery period, they know that there’s a problem that they’re trying to fix, they know the behaviour that’s problematic, but it’s not always that simple. And when they have a bad day or a setback, on the road to recovery, then the guilt sets in. “I should know better.” “I should do better.” “I should be better.”
Showing someone in that difficult place a representation like the example in this book is dangerous. It’s telling people that all you have to do is recognise the problem and then it’s easy. If you’re struggling with getting better, then it must be because you’re weak or stupid or…
It tells people that eating disorders, “Are all in your head,” and that, “You should just snap out of it.” Sufferers hear enough of that already, from the world around them and from their own sense of guilt. They don’t need to hear it from books as well.
Showing someone that eating disorders can be magically fixed in an instant is an insult to the people who’ve spent years trying to stay in recovery, and it’s hurtful to the people currently struggling with them.
So while representation of these issues in fiction is vitally important, be careful how you do it. If you’re a writer and you want to include a character with an eating disorder, or depression, or some other mental illness, don’t have a magical, perfect recovery in there. Treat these issues with care, because bad representation can be more harmful than no representation.
Jessica Meats is a science fiction author of both Young Adult and Adult novels and novellas, including, Child of the Hive, Omega Rising, Traitor in the Tower, and Shadows of Tomorrow. Between Yesterdays is her latest book and is the sequel to Shadows of Tomorrow: “When a young woman arrives, claiming to be sent from the future to help them, the Defenders must determine if this is just another trap.“
I’m always impressed by the diversity and by the range of female characters in Jess’s works. She is a writer who thinks seriously about how to handle these issues in her works, as well as providing good stories and original science fiction.