Media photographs and images, especially of the female body, are widely considered to play an important role in how eating disorders develop and are experienced by individuals. But literary depictions of eating disorders and body image are more subtle and less well understood.
Emily Troscianko partnered with Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, to investigate the connections between literary reading and mental health, with a focus on eating disorders. Emily used her previous research, investigating how textual features like descriptive style or shifts in narrative perspective shape the ways in which readers respond to literature, to create a survey with Beat, asking respondents about their experiences of literature and eating disorders.
Nearly 900 people replied, providing such an extensive data set that Emily was able to write two journal articles (published in the Journal of Eating Disorders and Medical Humanities) and two book chapters based on this work. The survey illuminated important differences between literature whose characters explicitly experience eating disorders, and the more complex influence of works that shape conceptions of body image and individual identity.
Emily reports that one of the most sobering finds reported on the survey was the habit of ‘self-triggering’, where individuals deliberately seek out fiction to make themselves more ill. This phenomenon ‘urgently needs more exploration’, Emily writes — ‘what motivates it, what are its effects, how can it be undercut?’
These will be questions investigated by Emily’s future research, which also includes establishing a reading group to explore how literary impacts change according to whether the fiction is read aloud as opposed to on the page. Since the end of the Fellowship, Emily has also been developing an app to support recovery from anorexia, incorporating her research as well as practical habit-shifting support.
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