National Eating Disorders Association

Step by Step, Word by Word: Confronting Eating Disorder Stigma Through Writing

Ellen Ricks

I’ve always known that I was a writer. I was the kid with an overactive imagination and a knack for weaving my thoughts into convincing stories, and I was so hopelessly in love with writing that I could see no other way to live. I am writer, utterly unfit to do anything else. 

Signs of my eating disorder started to appear when I was 13. I’ve watched it slowly get better and worse for almost a decade now. Like many others, I was in firm denial about my condition. Ignoring it and making up excuses for most of my behavior. Denial is one hell of a drug, but there are some things you can’t hide from forever. 

My eating disorder was at its worst when I was in college, a creative writing major. As I was writing, I noticed a common theme in my work: duplicates. Imaginary friends, identical twins, and shadowy “other” figures that only the female protagonist would see. This pattern kept repeating itself, these shimmery figments. Skeletal beauties that were as sharp as vipers one moment, tender and sweet the next. They were the antagonists in my stories but my main character loved them dearly, almost as much as she hated them. They were part of each other. 

It took me a very long time to realize why this theme kept metaphorizing itself into my work: my subconscious was writing about my eating disorder. Even though I never called it that in my writing before, or gave any of it symptoms or actions that I was doing in my real life, my feelings about my illness were there. My shame, my competiveness, my self-loathing, the depression and anxiety that hung over it all. My complex feelings of both despising it and being hopelessly in love with it. How afraid I was that I would find no other way to live but in a constant state of emotional chaos.

Even with this revelation I was still unconvinced that I was sick, arguing that my overly dramatic imagination was making things up again. Because nothing I was going through matched up to what I knew about eating disorders at that time. My knowledge came from YA novels and movies that were always about the cheerleader/dancer/model, who was pretty and pressured to look so, so thin. They would talk about how much they weighed or what that they did to get so thin, but they wouldn’t talk about the statistics. They didn’t tell me that eating disorders had the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, or how one in 200 American women suffer from anorexia. They did not enlighten me on the complexities and many shapes of an eating disorder.  

I couldn’t relate because I couldn’t fit into the stereotype. My story wasn’t the same as theirs; my body doesn’t look like theirs. If anything, they taught me how to be better at my disorder, not to get better. Everything told me what I should look like, but nothing related to how I was feeling. 

Even worse, these stories only had two types of endings: complete recovery, where the disorder is gone for good, or death. Neither of these endings taught what people with EDs desperately needed to know: recovery is not linear. 

As I write about my experiences, in both my fiction and non-fiction I strive to find balance in relaying what has happened to me without triggering others. Now I'm trying to re-write my life, giving it a new chapter. I was not cursed with this disorder and blessed with this gift of writing to be silent; our stories are too important and this illness has taken too many lives to stay in the dark. Your voice is meant to be heard. 

So I live day by day, step by step, word by glorious word, for as long as I can hold a pen, I have a fighting chance of survival. Maybe the bright side of being in constant battles with yourself is that it’s proof that you haven’t lost the war. I’m still in the middle of my personal battle, hoping the story that I am writing is not a cautionary tale, but the story I needed when I was younger. 

I hope that for everyone. 

Ellen is freelance writer, Hufflepuff, and bibliophile. She has a BFA in creative writing from SUNY Potsdam. She runs the fashion blog Sarcasm In Heels. When not writing, Ellen enjoys pumpkin spice everything, wearing dangerously tall footwear, and taking down the patriarchy.