It’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week — or as some of us call it, “Every Week (Trust Me I’m Well Aware)”. When you have an eating disorder (ED) — or, really, any kind of complicated relationship with food — repetitive thought patterns and habits are very hard to escape. I’ve come to realize the ED control tactic might just be with me, in some form, for most of my life. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still try to move away from habits that work against my own liberation. Whatever we practice — self-love, self-loathing — grows stronger.
One of the best medicines, for me, has been reading. The shame of having an eating disorder tends to create a negative cycle where we further punish/reward ourselves using the very behaviors we know cause us suffering. (And then, of course, many of us are also well aware of this, and add a “second arrow” of shame by beating ourselves up for beating ourselves up.) By reading a wide range of books about and featuring this very trap, I’ve felt far less alone and ashamed. While this is by no means a definitive list of books about eating disorders — and not a substitution for professional treatments — these are the books that have, so far, helped me most. I’m sure there are so many I’ve yet to discover, so please let me know your favorites too!
Sick Enough: A Guide to the Medical Complications of Eating Disorders by Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani
This nonfiction read made me question my own excuses for why I “didn’t really have a problem,” answering so many of my questions with data resulting from Dr. Gaudiani’s decades of expertise. She makes the well sourced argument that one doesn’t need to be obviously anorexic or dramatically binging/purging in order to be physically suffering. Eating disorders often don’t look like the ones we picture; in truth, it is much more common that an eating disorder might not make a person’s body appear outwardly sick at all. I’m not usually easily absorbed by something so packed with information, but this was a surprisingly compelling read. Dr. Gaudiani lays out the myriad ways even “less extreme” caloric deprivation harms the body, and it was excellent motivation for me to consider myself “sick enough” to make a change.
Quote: "Practically no one with an eating disorder stops eating and drinking altogether; that is a popular misconception [...] patients who restrict calories can have many medical problems that do not cause the blood tests to become abnormal. It turns out that nearly every patient who purely restricts — that is, does not purge — has normal labs.”
The Body Is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love by Sonya Renee Taylor
This book is as inspiring and kind as its title. I really appreciated the loving and mindful perspective Taylor comes from. I felt seen, understood, and able to believe there is a path forward to radically accepting my body. Taylor also acknowledges the aforementioned vicious cycle of blaming ourselves for disliking ourselves: We scold our bodies, and then we scold ourselves for being caught in beliefs we know aren’t serving us, and which are often directly in opposition to our morals. It’s one thing to preach body positivity; Taylor goes far beyond by delving into why self-love is often much easier said than practiced.
Quote: “Splattered before us like bugs on the windshield of life are all the ways we have shrunk the full expression of ourselves because we have been convinced that our bodies and therefore our very beings are deficient. We can also see how our inability to get out of our shame story amplifies our feelings of inadequacy.”
Thin Girls by Diana Clarke
Not only is this a really smart, funny novel, but it’s also one of the most nuanced books about eating disorders I’ve come across. Set mostly in a darkly funny treatment center, it focuses on the connection between sexuality (in this case the protagonist’s repressed queerness) with anorexia. I learned a surprising amount from this novel. Though it’s fiction, there are plenty of facts peppered throughout, such as that queer women are twice as likely to suffer from eating disorders as straight women. I also appreciated the depiction of a male anorexic character, since male eating disorders are rarely explored overtly.
Quote: “She’s an abusive lover, anorexia is. She stands next to you before the mirror, combs your hair into silk, and points at your reflection with a manicured finger. Fat, she whispers into your ear. She takes the apple you’ve picked from the bowl, presses her lips to your mouth in its place, tangles her tongue with yours. You don’t need that. She winks and drops the fruit to the floor.”
How To Eat by Thich Nhat Hanh
I love this little book by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, which features over 100 simple teachings, roughly one per page. Yes it’s about the broader concept of mindful eating (“don’t chew your suffering; just chew the string bean”), but it’s also surprisingly specific. Here you can find easy meditations, secular prayers, and other contemplations to help you appreciate your food on a new level; to take eating out of the realm of the self-centered and more into the interconnected-universal.
Quote: “To enjoy our tea, we have to be fully present and know clearly and deeply that we are drinking tea. When you lift your cup, you may like to breathe in the aroma. Looking deeply into your tea, you see that you are drinking fragrant plants that are the gift of Mother Earth. You see the labor of the tea pickers; you see the luscious tea fields and plantations in Sri Lanka, China, and Vietnam. You know that you are drinking a cloud; you are drinking the rain. The tea contains the whole universe.”
Empty by Susan Burton
I loved this memoir. I admired not just Burton’s beautiful writing but also her extremely raw honesty. She leaves very little of herself protected here: This book is her “renunciation of empty.” She knows she’ll write things that she’ll end up finding imperfect, but this is why she must tell her story anyway — to confront the fact that she will never be perfect. This book riveted me and made me hungry for all the right reasons. I fixed myself a delicious treat each night I read it —not because Burton is explaining how she’s “all better now,” but rather because her fearless candor inspired me to enjoy and embody my own aliveness, to keep myself nourished so that I might also live to help others dismantle shame.
Quote: “I still believed that thinness strengthened, protected, made me receptive. I did not see it as dangerous or restrictive. I truly did not believe it was possible to be the person I wanted to be, or to feel the things I wanted to feel, without it.”
Eating In The Light of the Moon: How Women Can Transform Their Relationship with Food Through Myths, Metaphors, and Storytelling by Dr. Anita Johnston
This is a healing book, and one that focuses on the power of narrative. It is addressed to a female audience, but I think that anyone with issues around eating and body image (so, most of us) could find something useful here. Dr. Johnston draws on her decades of experience leading workshops and treating eating disorder patients. Most useful, for me, was the idea that in order to move past controlling tendencies with food, one has to understand how those tendencies have “worked” as coping mechanisms. Rather than viewing the eating disorder as the enemy (and therefore feeling even worse when you can’t vanquish it), you might honor it like an old friend you’re ready to leave back in high school. You can form a new narrative around your relationship, and grow in different directions.
Quote: “A woman who seeks recovery needs to understand clearly the ways in which her disordered eating has served her so that she can stop viewing it as simply an impediment to her happiness. Only then can she know precisely which skills she needs to develop in order to live a life free from bingeing, dieting, and food obsessions.”
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
I appreciated this memoir for Gay’s refusal to sugarcoat anything or claim she’s healed. Gay makes no apologies for her insecurities, her body, her fear, or her struggles. In doing so she gives others permission to feel less shame for their imperfect or even destructive relationship with eating. “[M]ost women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but it’s something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us,” Gay writes, at the same time acknowledging she can’t fully overcome this internalized oppression. She takes up space, but makes no claims to being heroic, or not wishing to lose weight, or never hating her body. “This isn’t bragging. This is an atlas.”
Quote: “To be clear, the fat acceptance movement is important, affirming, and profoundly necessary, but I also believe that part of fat acceptance is accepting that some of us struggle with body image and haven’t reached a place of peace and unconditional self-acceptance.”
Milk Fed by Melissa Broder
Broder’s protagonist, Rachel, is a queer, Jewish woman who has a tendency towards obsessive food rituals and exercise bulimia. This gripping, funny, and sexy book (as I’ve experienced all of Broder’s books) is about the connection between sex, food, and spirituality. Not unlike the story in Thin Girls, Rachel’s coming into her queerness greatly alters her relationship to food. This book also made me hungry —to feed myself in a loving, sensual way.
Quote: “I wanted him to absorb my portrayal of ease. Yes, I was performing a one-woman show about a person who could simply take or leave a burrito, no biggie, just coolly have a burrito at rest on her desk, no obsession, no fear, a sane food woman, a woman to whom food was only one facet of a very expansive life, the burrito simply a prop, a trifle to be toyed with, a second thought, a third thought, even.”
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Ooof, this book is brutal — but let’s be real, so are eating disorders. You might say the story is kind of like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in its surreal transformation of the protagonist, but it is truly its own horror. As an ethical vegan, I was a little afraid it would come to a simplistic conclusion, like, “Hey, look, vegetarians all have eating disorders!” But it’s way more complex than that, and is at times rather sexy in its sadness. You really just have to read it to get it. And maybe even then, you won’t get it all right away. The pain you feel watching the protagonist slowly sink might just make you want to learn to swim.
Quote: “It’s your body, you can treat it however you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted.”
Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN by Tara Brach
Meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach speaks openly about her own history with disordered eating. Few people have done more to help me sit with whatever is arising in my life; her podcast is wonderful, and you might want to check out her video episodes about eating in particular). Her latest book, Radical Compassion, focuses on the practice of RAIN — Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture. The practice is invaluable for working with eating disorders, but can also be applied to other emotional and behavioral struggles. I helped myself emerge from a particularly challenging place a few years ago by listening to Brach’s teachings as I ate. She made great company, like a wise aunt or therapist urging me onwards.
Quote: “The phrase that sums this up is this: ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together.’ Our habits are sustained by repeating patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that have created and reinforced neural networks in our brain. By changing our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, we can change these neural networks.”
Cheat Day by Liv Stratman (forthcoming May 25)
I believe it’s also important to read lighter depictions of the harm caused by eating disorders — for these harms to figure heavily in the story, but not be the whole story, since that is often the truth of our lives. This novel is a smart escape — the kind of book you devour in a day or two, but not because it’s literary cotton candy. This book is sexy and funny, but also very perceptive. It’s about a woman who obsessively diets and is super hungry, but is hooked by the allure of “clean eating” nonetheless. When she meets an intriguing man, some very hot scenes ensue, and the connection between desire and food is again explored. The twist is she’s having an affair, and we totally root for her and feel the pull of both men and the lives she caught between. This book is especially great for serial dieters, “clean eaters,” and others who might not be seen as “having a problem” by most, but who are often suffering from food obsession that infringes upon their lives.
Quote: “But for some reason, in the company of Matt Larsson, I felt my unhappiness — and my constant hunger — subside, and so I followed those moments, chased time alone with him, pressed his words and then his body closer and closer to the center of who I was until, eventually, I had a real problem.”
The Intuitive Eating Workbook: Ten Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
Not going to lie, this workbook is so good I haven’t finished it all yet. That’s a compliment, in this case, because this workbook asks you to do real work — to practice relearning your hunger cues, to follow and record your own emotional patterns and triggers, and much more. This is an anti-diet, health-at-any-size workbook for people who want to regain a sense of when they are hungry or full. The longer you’ve been ignoring these signals, the harder work that can be. While therapy is the best treatment, this guide makes a great (and more affordable) companion.
Quote: “Keep your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates. Otherwise you can trigger a primal drive to overeat. Once you reach the moment of excessive hunger, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant. Learning to honor this first biological signal sets the stage for rebuilding trust with yourself and food.”
Rachel Krantz is a journalist and author of a forthcoming reported memoir about non-monogamy. ●