Why We Need More ‘Hunger’ And Less ‘To The Bone’
My eating disorder story — and the collective story of those like me — has become the only story.
The last bit of text that I highlighted while reading Hunger, Roxane Gay’s recently released memoir about her experience in her body, came just paragraphs before the end of the book: “I appreciate that at least some of who I am rises out of the worst day of my life and I don’t want to change who I am.” Next to it, I scribbled a flurry of exclamation points.
I closed the pages when I was finished, and I sat with the feelings that remained, encompassed by those last underlines. I, too, have always responded this way. When people have asked — late at night while looking at the stars, or on a first date, daring the getting-to-know-you conversation forward — what in my past I wish I could erase, I’ve hemmed and hawed. The butterfly effect always feels too drastic: If I altered that experience, then who would I be today?
Our stories matter because they tell us who we are.
This is especially true when I think back on my eating disorder past — an unfortunate spiraling after having decided to go on a diet to secure a quote-unquote “revenge body” following a breakup with an emotionally abusive partner. If I had never fallen into self-starvation, if I had never wound up in that painful relationship in the first place, would I still be a feminist today? Would I be a body acceptance activist? Would I be writing this essay?
Roxane Gay’s book wasn’t written for me — and by that, I mean I doubt it was written with my constellation of identities in mind. I am both a woman and queer, as Gay is, but I am neither fat nor Black. I’m middle class and traditionally well educated (like Gay, too), but I am also thin, white, and conventionally attractive. My disordered eating doesn’t result in bingeing or weight gain; I restrict, and I lose — glamorized in the media and celebrated in society. I understand what it means to hunger and how my relationship to food and my body is deeply affected by my identities, both marginalized and privileged. But I don’t experience the world the way that Gay does — not least of which because I don’t know what it’s like not to see my experiences reflected back to me constantly.
That’s what it’s like to be me — to be us, the thin white cis women in eating disorder recovery who so totally encompass most people’s understanding of what that recovery involves.
We see ourselves everywhere.
On the same day that I finished reading Hunger, I watched the newly released trailer for Netflix’s upcoming film To the Bone. And if I’m being honest (and I have to be — have to lay my own shit bare — if you and I are going to have this conversation), I chuckled at the start of it.
“Alright. Ready?” asks Kelly, played by Liana Liberato. She places a plate of food in front of her sister, Ellen, played by Lily Collins. She’s prepared. She pulls up a list — the correct answers to the calorie-counting game they’re playing — on her iPhone.
Ellen takes one look at the meal and starts rattling off numbers (represented here alphabetically as to avoid the the triggering impacts of tying food to specific numbers) with confidence: “X for the pork, y for the buttered noodles, z for the roll, and…”
Well, I disagree with her estimation for the butter.
But when Kelly responds, impressed that her sister’s skills are solid, I smiled. I’ve joked about it, too — that my only party trick is eerily accurate calorie counting. Throw at me any food that I’ve eaten with consistency in the past decade, and I can tell you exactly how many units of energy are contained in a serving size. Seeing that represented on screen — and in such a sweet, quirky way that it almost seems cute, rather than frighteningly obsessive — felt validating. Look, ma! It’s me!
Of course, as many people have already pointed out, the trailer is a bit of a disappointment. Much of the material in it — Ellen excruciatingly doing sit-ups in her room, a close up of her protruding spine, fainting in a hospital — is triggering. And the film appears to fall into a stereotype trap, exemplifying, rather than challenging, the singularity of the genre: another movie about eating disorders focused on a female protagonist with anorexia who enters in-patient care, surrounded by a rag tag group of her peers. All of them white. All of them thin. All of them affluent. (Almost.)
Yes, I saw myself represented here — both visually and experientially. But I didn’t see anyone else. In eating disorder narratives, we almost never see anyone else.
And this lack of representation goes against what we know, scientifically, to be true: Wealth does not make you more likely to develop an eating disorder. Eating disorder prevalence in the United States, with the exception of anorexia, is similar across racial and ethnic backgrounds. Queer women are similarly likely — and queer men, more likely — to develop eating disorders as their straight counterparts. Trans folks are at an increased risk for eating disorder development. Fat people have eating disorders. Disabled people have eating disorders. Older people have eating disorders. Where are their stories?
Eating disorder prevalence in the United States, with the exception of anorexia, is similar across racial and ethnic backgrounds.
In her 2016 TED Talk, writer and activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains what danger lies in a singular narrative: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
My story — and the collective story of those like me — has become the only story. What’s worse is that we know it — and don’t do anything powerful to change it.
The eating disorder recovery community — the mainstream one — is interesting. It’s not particularly radical, and it’s not particularly feminist. You’re hard pressed, even when you search what should be the right hashtags, to find anyone who isn’t thin, white, and pretty; to find a feminist politic that goes beyond #squadgoals; to find a conversation about capitalism or colonialism or cisnormativity. Those people exist (follow the works of Nalgona Positivity Pride, Trans Folx Fighting Eating Disorders, and The Body Is Not an Apology immediately), but they’re not the accounts with large followings. They make people confront their privilege — force us to consider our complacency — and that discomfort isn’t what most people gravitate toward body acceptance for.
But even in these mainstream communities, people are starting to promote diversity (a word I use very deliberately here, for all of its faults). The eating disorder recovery community’s reaction to To the Bone, for instance, has been largely negative — and not just because of how the story is being told, but also because of whose story is at the forefront. People are waking up to the damage done by a lack of fat people, people of color, disabled people, queer and trans people, people with eating disorders besides anorexia, and people who don’t have access to health care. I see folks screaming it from the proverbial rooftops — the digital version of which is Twitter, I guess: “Give us more varied stories! Uncover what we’ve been ignoring!”
Eating disorders aren’t just a white woman problem — and it’s dangerous to assume they are.theestablishment.co
And folks are hearing those cries. Mega-outlets like BuzzFeed and Cosmopolitan couldn’t help but notice how frustrated people were with the trailer. Ariana Munsamy hit the nail on the head when she wrote for The Tempest, “I want to see more people of color in stories like these…because instead, our bodies are being used as buffers for white voices and experiences.” Even National Eating Disorders Association CEO Claire Mysko made mention of To The Bone’s flaws in a recent Teen Vogue interview.
And that’s great. We — all of us, but especially those with social, economic, and political power — need to be demanding more from our media. But why are we stopping there? Why are we ending our pursuit of representation at critiquing that which comes in a white, thin, pretty package? Why aren’t we spending an equal, or even greater, amount of energy engaging with and amplifying those who do challenge that narrative?
Why do we remain so enamored with our own image that we continue to center it, even when we’re ostensibly tearing it down?
Because here’s what I know is true: My feminist circles are reading Hunger. They’re tweeting quotes and Instagramming the cover; they’re dedicating Facebook comment threads to its themes, and they’re showing up to readings. But my recovery circles — my friends with eating disorder pasts who wax philosophically about intersectionality — aren’t showing up.
Of course, at its core, this issue really isn’t about Hunger — or To the Bone, for that matter. Both are bound to capture wide audiences and receive ample criticism and celebration. It’s not even that we’re more likely to have read Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted than Stephanie Covington Armstrong’s Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat, or that we’re more likely to support one another’s work than to share that of activists like Alok Vaid-Menon, Caleb Luna, and Ijeoma Oluo.
It’s about the root of the thing.
We need to be demanding more from our media. But why are we stopping there?
In Hunger, Roxane Gay writes, “My rage is often silenced because no one wants to hear fat-girl stories of taking up too much space and still finding nowhere to fit. People prefer the stories of the too-skinny girls who starve themselves and exercise too much and are gray and gaunt and disappearing in plain sight.”
In this world that prefers our stories, the truth is: We do, too.