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Thank you to the wonderful Celeste for this review of Biting Anorexia by Lucy Howard-Taylor. If you feel you would like to contribute a review, even if it’s to a book that we’ve already reviewed, please send us an email at email@example.com
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This book was incredibly hard for me to read, and even harder for me to review. As a student of the University of Sydney myself (in fact, I purchased the book at the chancellor’s bookfest in my first year) I found it impossible not to read myself into the text, not to see myself in the protagonist’s actions.
As so many texts on Eating Disorders are, Biting Anorexia is a memoir. Covering Howard-Taylor’s first year at university, it also details her first steps in recovery. Split into three sections, it shows her movement from the depths of her eating disorder, into her first attempts at recovery, and through to a more stable existence without her ED. “The Black”, the first section, looks back at her time in high school, where she sees her eating disorder as being at its worst. This then gives way to “The Gray”, which forms the majority of the book, and covers the summer before her first year through to the summer before her second year. During this time, Howard-Taylor sees herself as being “in recovery” or “trying to recover”, but is still acting in a disordered manner, and succumbing to a number of destructive behaviours. Finally, the memoir concludes with “The Light”, which, rather than the rest of the book, which insists on looking back and speaking in reference to the past, looks forward, and considers possibilities for the future.
One of the things I found most frustrating about this memoir was Howard-Taylor’s refusal to understand, or critically examine, the ‘disorder heirarchy’ that she finds herself victim to. Diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa, and claiming it as ‘her disorder’ to the extent that it functions as the title of the memoir, Howard-Taylor is predominantly suffering from Bulimia Nervosa during “The Gray” – she details the specifics of an number of binging and purging experiences, and mentions it in passing with great frequency, but never says the word “bulimia.” Seen as a ‘dirty word’ in some anorexic communities, it is hard to read Howard-Taylor as not trying to hold onto her ‘perfect diagnosis’ of anorexia in this section. Her refusal to engage textually with the shifting dynamics of her eating disorder, or with the triggers for her binging and purging makes the text a problematic read for one attempting to better understand their own eating disorder or eating disorders more generally. In addition to this, it adds to this hierarchy, given credence ‘from the horse’s mouth’, so to speak, and I take great issue with this, as it is not helpful to any kind of mental health or eating disorder advocacy.
A further difficulty I found with the novel is Howard-Taylor’s meta-textual dynamics. The text is interspersed with her poetry, prose, diary entries, and emails. The reproduction of these, without critical commentary, makes it difficult for a reader to ascertain whether or not she is subscribing to the views she purports to present in these meta-texts, some of which are clearly heavily influenced by her state of mind and the severity of her disorder at the time of writing. Without critiquing statements made in this mindset, and reproducing them in a recovery-positive text, is implicitly stating that these thoughts and feelings are themselves positive, which is not the case.
Trigger warnings: explicit discussion of restriction, binging, purging, depression, anxiety and suicidality. I would not recommend that anyone not in a positive place, or not confident in their recovery read this book. I would also recommend that those in a position similar to myself – Australian undergraduate university students, or those in their final years of high school, avoid this book where possible. Whilst some of the material is interesting, and it can pique self-reflection, the manner in which it is presented is too problematic for me to recommend it.