Book & Film Review / Helpful Hints

“Lighter Than My Shadow” and the Eating Disorder Memoir

Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow, which hit shelves last November, isn’t your typical eating disorder memoir: Green lets cartoon images do much of the talking in this autobiographical graphic novel. While dialogue, thought bubbles, and limited narration help advance and clarify her story, the spotlight is on Green’s drawings, which fill the majority of the 500+ page black-and-white work. These images, fluctuating between realistic and surreal, offer a visual representation of the author’s struggles with her illness. They allow us to see Green as she sees herself and to experience her world as she experiences it. Sequential images of her stomach ballooning communicates the force of her negative body image and an angry black scribble that lives above her head conveys her inner turmoil.

Green’s artwork walks us through her personal experience with an eating disorder: The anxiety and picky eating that colored her childhood, the restriction and ensuing weight loss that catapulted her into anorexia nervosa as a teenager, the cycle of binge-eating and restricting that defined her university years, and, perhaps most importantly, her road to recovery. The drawings that accompany these slivers of life, though cartoonish, are intense and sometimes shocking. There is no question that, particularly for visual learners, this book is powerful. But does this power help or harm readers?

This is an important question, particularly as eating disorder memoirs grow in popularity and digital technologies allow for more individuals to share their personal narrative of illness and recovery with the public in blog format. Earlier this month, the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) addressed this issue in a tweetchat entitled “Eating Disorder Memoirs: Helpful or Harmful?” During the chat, clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Thomas, eating disorder memoirists Carrie Arnold and Stephanie Covington Armstrong, and others, tried to answer this question. So, what are some of the pros and cons of eating disorder memoirs? How can we apply them to Green’s graphic novel?

Pro: Eating disorder memoirs can increase awareness and make sufferers feel less alone.

How does it apply to Lighter Than My Shadow (LTMS)? As the saying goes, a picture (or in this case, a cartoon) is worth a thousand words. Because of its compelling images, LTMS might be a great educational tool for family members, friends, and clinicians who want to better understand the inner world of an individual grappling with an eating disorder. Readers who are struggling with or in recovery from an eating disorder might find the experiences depicted in the images relatable—for some, this may reduce the shame and isolation associated with eating disorders, and inspire empowerment to recover and really, truly move beyond the illness.

Con: Eating disorder memoirs can glorify these conditions and even provide “tips” for staying sick.

How does it apply to LTMS? AED tweetchat discussants agreed that memoirs that include specific weights, calorie counts, diets, or methods of purging can be unhealthy and unhelpful. LTMS stays away from these specifics, but the images themselves, and particularly their shock value, could be uniquely triggering for certain readers.

Pro: Eating disorder memoirs can serve as “recovery role-models.”

How does it apply to LTMS? Instead of providing tips to stay sick, some memoirs provide tips for getting healthy. LTMS shows us what the path to recovery looks like for its author, even allowing the reader a bird’s-eye view of her psychotherapy sessions. As a graphic novel, this book especially emphasizes the therapeutic power of art in the author’s life. This focus may benefit readers who are navigating their own recoveries and seeking creative and adaptive outlets for difficult emotions, beliefs, and experiences.

The takeaway:  Broadly speaking, research has not found that eating disorder memoirs have a negative impact on readers, but it is likely that certain books might be triggering to certain individuals. Helpfulness or harmfulness of the material, including LTMS, depends on the circumstance, the reader, and the focus of the narrative.

A reader who is currently struggling with an eating disorder might experience a memoir very differently than a reader who is in recovery. And a clinician, or friend or family member of someone afflicted with these illnesses will likely each have a unique response to this book or others like it. Also, consider whether the book provides a recovery role model or glorifies the illness; if it offers advice for getting healthy, or tips for staying sick.

So, before you flip open the next bestseller or dive into an individual’s personal blog, take a moment to think about how the material may affect you, whether you are on a quest to support a friend, family member or patient in need on your own journey towards recovery from an eating disorder.

 

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