Fiction and eating disorders – exploring connections in story-telling

Fiction and eating disorders – exploring connections in story-telling

Book tape measure 16 reducedConnections between fiction-reading and mental health are being explored by UK charity Beat and a University of Oxford research fellow. The first phase of the project involved an online survey.

Bodies, Minds, and Words: A New Collaboration

Dr Emily Troscianko invites your help in discovering how fiction can help people manage or recover from their eating disorder.

Dr Emily Troscianko — exploring the pages of fiction in relation to eating disorders.

Dr Emily Troscianko invites your help in discovering how fiction can help people manage or recover from their eating disorder. Emily writes:

When you let yourself get sucked into the fictional worlds of novels or short stories, you probably do so primarily for enjoyment: to give yourself some time out from everyday routines, to experience a different version of the world through someone else’s eyes, or to explore the imaginative realms that beautifully inventive language can open up.

Sometimes, though, we might seek out particular books for more pragmatic reasons: because we need cheering up, for instance, or are hoping for insight into a difficult situation.

At other times we start reading a book with no expectation that it will have these kinds of positive effects on us, but realise when we put it down that it has changed us in some unanticipated way: made us think or feel differently about ourselves or the world or other people.

It’s clear that these kinds of changes might be relevant to mental health in general, and there’s increasing interest among researchers and clinicians in the role of what’s known as ‘creative bibliotherapy’ (see Brewster 2011 for a review) – the use of creative writing including fiction for therapeutic purposes, often in a reading group format.

Eating disorders – it’s time to study the stories

So far the applications of fiction and poetry reading have been investigated in other mental health contexts: with people suffering from depression (Billington et al. 2010), women in prison (Billington 2011), and people coping with the effects of HIV/AIDS (Tukhareli 2011), for example. But the potential for creative bibliotherapy to help people manage or recover from their eating disorder has hardly been researched at all yet.

There’s a small amount of research on how people respond to reading autobiographical eating disorder memoirs (Thomas et al. 2006), and some clinical work using, for instance, poetry reading and writing (Ramsey-Wade 2011) or drama therapy based on fairytale (Landy 1992) to help people suffering from eating disorders, but the surface of this research area has so far hardly been scratched.

Collaborating to explore reader’s responses

A new collaboration between myself and the UK eating disorders charity Beat aims to build on existing research, drawing on our respective areas of expertise: Beat’s in connecting with sufferers, carers, and other interested parties to maximise the effectiveness and reach of the research, and mine in carrying out empirical work with fictional texts. My background is in literary studies, with a particular interest in how different features of texts prompt readers to respond in different ways, and my personal experience of anorexia has also been influential in developing our current research questions.

Online survey

The first phase of the partnership has involved setting up an online survey which asks respondents about their reading habits and how they think reading may relate to aspects of their mental health, with a particular focus on disordered eating. We hope to gather responses from a wide range of people, with and without personal experience of an eating disorder.

Our aim is to use the results of the survey to help shape the design of the next phase of the project, a set of experiments which will start to establish relationships of cause and effect between the way stories are written and elements of readers’ mental states, attitudes, and/or behaviours that relate to disordered eating.

We have some hypotheses about how textual features like metaphor, descriptive detail, and narrative perspective (the point of view a story is told from, including whether the person telling the story is a character in the fictional world or not) may affect readers in different ways, but we hope the survey data will help refine these.

Our hope is that this innovative interdisciplinary research project will help broaden our understanding of the influence of cultural factors on how eating disorders arise, develop, and are recovered from, and ultimately suggest ways of enhancing our understanding and treatment of eating disorders by taking account of the role of fiction-reading.

We also hope that the project will contribute to the study of literature by showing how taking individual differences between readers seriously can be relevant to understanding literature as an object of interpretation.

More concretely, a shorter-term aim is to feed into the Beat helpline’s new book review initiative with evidence-based guidelines about what fictional texts may be helpful to sufferers, friends, and carers.


* Opportunity for taking part in the survey has now closed. Further updates on the research will be shared as they come to hand.

Dr Emily T. Troscianko

The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities

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