Both movies and books can be incredibly powerful and influential in a person's harrowing journey though an eating disorder. I've noticed that triggers seem to be more prominent during the denial phase and when a person is working on recovery it is easier to notice triggers and try to avoid them. Both the film Black Swan that I recently saw and the book Unbearable Lightness that I just finished have been labeled as triggers by people struggling or who have struggled with eating disorders.
In Black Swan Natalie Portman plays Nina, an emotionally and possibly mentally disturbed professional ballerina desperately vying for the staring role in Swan Lake in which she is supposed to embody both roles of the black and the white swan. Nina, like most extremely talented and professional ballerinas, appears noticeably thin and fragile, as is apparently the requirement for a true ballerina. Nina is depicted as a small eater to the point of anorexia and possibly a purger. She eats half a grapefruit and an egg white for breakfast (grapefruit was a common breakfast for me back in my dark days) and becomes noticeably anxious distraught when her mother encourages her to eat a large piece of cake to celebrate her gaining the starring role. She vomits several times during the film, but I can't exactly recall whether any of the times were purposeful or simply out of nerves or fear. This film brings to my attention even more the prominent eating disorder problem in ballet and that is isn't only the modeling and entertainment industry we need to be concerned about. Ballet is different than most sports which usually require a lot of food consumption as fuel for the intense training and workouts. In ballet, the goal is to appear as long and delicate as possible while gaining lean muscle from all the dancing. This means that food consumption must be kept to a minimum even with all the calories burned during dancing, which often leads to anorexia and/or bulimia. Sadly, Nina represents many dedicated and talented ballerinas, especially those who are petite like her. Shorter people look thicker quickly the more they work out, whereas tall people naturally look longer and leaner from the get-go. Other than her breakfast and a bite of frosting in the cake scene, Nina is never seen eating in the film. Natalie Portman is quoted saying that she didn't eat much during the filming and looks thinner than I've ever seen her before. It is reported that the already slender Portman lost 20 pounds to portray Nina. Nina is striving to be perfect throughout the film, and I think that perfectionism is reflected in her eating disorder and pushing herself so hard.
So, in terms of the film being a possible trigger to anorexics/bulimics, it is really up to the individual and how deep in the disorder they are. I found this article on the film and its relationship with food extremely interesting. I am very happy to report that I didn't fee triggered by the film in any way. In fact, I was so disgusted and disturbed by several elements in the film that the eating disorder aspect wasn't my primary focus. However, I think that anyone with eating disorders or tendencies toward one should be on their guard while viewing the film. While not glorifying anorexia and bulimia, the film certainly doesn't reveal the true damaging effects it does to one's body and also proves that both Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis--who plays her rival in the film--practically became anorexic themselves for the film. That is in fact what I find more disturbing than the film itself, and is discussed in detail in the article I mentioned above. as well as this article, which echoes the other.
The book Unbearable Lightness chronicles Portia de Rossi's painfully brutal struggle through anorexia and bulimia that began at the tender age of twelve years old. Her memoir could not be more painfully honest and makes me want to jump inside the pages and shake her before hugging her and telling her that she's going to be okay. While reading the book, I identified closely with Portia's extreme self hatred and the voices in her head that kept pushing her by telling her she wasn't good enough. I identified with so many of her thoughts and feelings and even some of her methods of losing and maintaining her weight. Instead of being shocked or frightened by this, I was actually comforted to know that I wasn't the only crazy little blonde isolating herself and revolving her life around her little food and exercise rituals. As Portia says in the beginning of the book," I didn't decide to become anorexic. It snuck up on me disguised as a healthy diet, a professional attitude." I feel that many people including myself who have ever struggled with an eating disorder can identify with this. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine myself resisting food to the point of near fainting to achieve an impossibly thin body. Later in the book she wrote that she felt "trapped" in her eating disorder. I remember saying the exact thing to my mom after I finally opened up about it. There isn't a worse feeling than feeling trapped in your own self-destructive cycle. I remember so desperately wanting to be like the people around me who ate and didn't feel like killing themselves afterwards. I remember feeling like I'll never be able to enjoy food in a healthy way again. This book, though hard to read and incredibly graphic at times, really spoke to me and encouraged me in my continual quest for full recovery. I can understand why some people farther from recovery than me can see her descriptions of her crazy rituals that helped her get down to a mere 82 pounds as triggers, but to me they were horrific and so painfully sad. I commend Portia for opening up about everything and risking looking like a complete crazy person to people who have never struggled with the disease because for those who have, I'm sure she has touched many in a huge way. While scouring the internet for more information and people's opinions on her book, I came across this incredible blog called Body Image Rehab Blog which highly recommends the book to all people in the midst or recovering from an eating disorder. I am going to echo this by saying that if you are easily triggered by detailed descriptions of the crazy weight loss rituals of an extreme anorexic/bulimic to be on your guard. To the rest of you, read this book. My prediction that instead of trigging past unhealthy habits, it will inspire you to get better and maybe even write a memoir of your own.
Triggers can be sneaky and dangerous, so my advice to you would be to figure out the things that easily trigger you and to avoid them at all costs. For me, simply seeing images of thin and beautiful "perfect" looking women in Victoria's Secret catalogues or fashion shows tempts me to compare them to my own body and want to work harder to look like them. Fortunately, I am so happy and thankful to be able to say that I rarely ever feel triggered to starve myself, and even if I do I never listen to that voice. Instead I might be triggered to work out harder or more and to snack less and limit the kinds of food I eat or just to simply feel depressed that my body can't look like that and be healthy at the same time. So, as I stated above, triggers seem to pop up more often and are more common the farther you are from recovery. If you aren't as far along in your recovery process as I am, just know that you can and WILL get there. Just as I never thought I would develop anorexia, when I was at my worst point in it I felt trapped and never thought I'd recover as much as I have already. Identifying your triggers can be one of the healthiest and best things you can do to help you recover. With that my friends, I toast to you and wish you all a Happy New Year! Let's change the world, one recovered healthy person at a time!