I have never been able to vomit in the cute, clean, efficient manner I’m supposed to. When I purge, the contents of my stomach re-emerge with force: spatters of ice-cream peppering the walls, chunks of cake plastering the toilet bowl, thick strings of chocolatey mucus stretching from mouth to fingers as I gag loudly. Backsplash is inevitable. Puke-breath lingers forever. It’s not a pretty picture. It leaves me wondering – am I terrible at being bulimic? Maybe I am. But perhaps the real problem is that I’ve been fed an illusion about how an eating disorder should look.
I have battled bulimia and other forms of disordered eating for over a decade. I was unwell for nearly two years before I got professional help, and in that seemingly infinite space between 13 and 15 years of age, I had to find my own way of making sense of my experience. I found it in the dark corners of the web, on pro-ED websites and films on Youtube.
These grainy, trashy midday movies from the eighties and nineties became a secret addiction. Whenever I was home alone, I’d watch one on my laptop in bite-sized chunks, the next nine-minute segment loading in the background while I devoured scenes of emaciated girls running in oversized tracksuits, doing endless sit-ups, and passing out all over the place. Rather than providing insight into my own experience and making me feel less alone, these films served the altogether less helpful function of reinforcing the core belief that fuelled my disorder: I was not good enough.
I couldn’t purge quickly and cleanly like those girls could, and I certainly wasn’t thin enough. My back didn’t look like it belonged to a famished child and I didn’t faint in the middle of my ballet or gym class. I didn’t even take a ballet or gym class.
Portrayals of eating disorders are often criticised for being too ‘instructive’. However, while it’s true that films like Perfect Body (1997) and For the Love of Nancy (1994) had a negative influence on my mental health, it wasn’t because they coached me on calorie counting or taught me how to trigger my gag reflex. I didn’t need cheesy daytime movies to teach me how to self-destruct – I had an abundance of internet forums for that. The dangers of these films are more insidious. They glamorise the disorders. They simplify the causal factors and minimise the recovery process. They reinforce the stereotype that eating disorders only affect skinny white girls. And, above all, they fuel the core beliefs and personality traits that eating disorders feed on.
Like many people with disordered eating, I am fiercely competitive and perfectionistic. It was clear to me from these films that, when it came to eating disorders, there was a hierarchy. Anorexia was the gold standard, and anything less deserved little attention. In order to matter, I needed to be deathly thin and I needed to be put in hospital. Otherwise, I was nothing.
It was a goal I never reached. Every time I tried to restrict my intake for long periods, my body and mind rebelled and I’d find myself swept back into the binge-purge cycle, my weight creeping back up to where it naturally wanted to sit. It has taken years for me to reconcile with my inability to wind up in hospital. Even now, while attending meetings at an eating disorder clinic as a Consumer Advisor, I find myself dismissing my own value. ‘I was just an outpatient,’ I hear myself say. ‘I was never hospitalised.’
If I feel this way as a young, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered female, I can only imagine how devaluing it must be to seek representations of yourself in films about eating disorders if you fall outside these boxes. If you’re lucky, you may find a nod to your existence in a minor role. The controversial film To the Bone (2017) portrayed a refreshingly diverse array of background characters, including a person of colour with binge-eating disorder and a young man with anorexia. However, its central narrative remained true to the hierarchy established by its forerunners.
In the past two decades, the film industry has given surprisingly little attention to eating disorders, perhaps due to the challenges inherent in tackling such a sensitive issue. The few films that have emerged in this time have continued to glamorise the disorders. They still foster a warped hierarchy in which anorexia reigns supreme, and diminish individuals to a diagnosis.
I want to see more. Give me mess and noise and flecks of puke caught in hair. Give me bodies and personalities that break the mould. Give me complex causal factors and nuanced family dynamics. Give me recovery journeys that are meandering road-trips with peaks, troughs, and U-turns. Give me dynamic, diverse characters who have careers, hobbies, relationships, and challenges outside of their illness. Give me stories of people who are battling an eating disorder, but are not defined by it.
Ashleigh Hardcastle is a Perth-based writer and psychologist whose work has appeared in The Big Issue. She has been a fellow at the KSP Writer’s Centre and a participant in the CBCA Maurice Saxby Creative Development Program. She is a Friends junkie and does hip hop dance to country music.