Bad Representation vs No Representation

Guest Post by Jessica Meats [trigger warning for discussion of eating disorders].

Jessica Meats

Jessica Meats

Representation is an important subject when thinking about books and writing. It’s something I’m trying to do better at in my own books and something I try to encourage through buying books which represent diversity. One particular type of representation is close to my heart and that’s representation of mental health issues, particularly eating disorders. There are some great books out there about eating disorders, but it’s very rare to find a book that includes these issues without it being the whole focus of the plot.

I thought I’d found one recently. I was reading a young adult novel about a group of teenagers caught up in a war and the protagonist showed definite signs of an eating disorder. The words ‘eating disorder’ or ‘anorexia’ were never used explicitly, but the protagonist showed definite anorexic behaviours. She severely restricted what she ate, she felt physically incapable of eating certain types of food, she had a strong desire to be thin to a point where other characters thought she looked unhealthy. It was even mentioned that she’d been in therapy around her refusal to eat.

Normally, I would be thrilled to find a book like this. A serious issue is there, but it’s in the background; the plot and the characters are focused on other things. It’s important that people who struggle with these issues find mirrors for themselves in fiction. However, then came the problem. The character got better. Just like that. At a point about halfway through the book, the character had a moment of revelation in which she realised she was starving and after that point, she was perfectly fine. For the rest of the book, there wasn’t a single sign of the eating issues which had been a significant part of her character up to that point.

This is dangerous.

This is a bad representation of eating disorders and it can send a very dangerous message to readers. It can reinforce the message to non-sufferers that an eating disorder is a choice, that it’s just teenagers being silly and they should just get over it and start eating again. There are people out there who think anorexia is just an extreme diet, or that eating disorders are a fad. Those people, reading this book, will get confirmation of their beliefs.

Worse than that, it gives the same message to the people who suffer eating disorders. Eating disorders are a form of mental illness. They’re an illness the affects people physically and psychologically. And they’re a disease with a long and slow recovery period. Sometimes, people spend years trying to recover from an eating disorder. Sometimes, people spend the rest of their lives fighting patterns of behaviour that were part of the disorder. Sometimes, recovery seems to be going well and there’s a moment of relapse. All of that can come with a dose of guilt.

It’s really easy for an eating disorder sufferer to blame themselves, particularly when they have bad days during recovery. In the recovery period, they know that there’s a problem that they’re trying to fix, they know the behaviour that’s problematic, but it’s not always that simple. And when they have a bad day or a setback, on the road to recovery, then the guilt sets in. “I should know better.” “I should do better.” “I should be better.”

Showing someone in that difficult place a representation like the example in this book is dangerous. It’s telling people that all you have to do is recognise the problem and then it’s easy. If you’re struggling with getting better, then it must be because you’re weak or stupid or…

It tells people that eating disorders, “Are all in your head,” and that, “You should just snap out of it.” Sufferers hear enough of that already, from the world around them and from their own sense of guilt. They don’t need to hear it from books as well.

Showing someone that eating disorders can be magically fixed in an instant is an insult to the people who’ve spent years trying to stay in recovery, and it’s hurtful to the people currently struggling with them.

So while representation of these issues in fiction is vitally important, be careful how you do it. If you’re a writer and you want to include a character with an eating disorder, or depression, or some other mental illness, don’t have a magical, perfect recovery in there. Treat these issues with care, because bad representation can be more harmful than no representation.

Between Yesterdays, by Jessica MeatsJessica Meats is a science fiction author of both Young Adult and Adult novels and novellas, including, Child of the Hive, Omega Rising, Traitor in the Tower, and Shadows of Tomorrow. Between Yesterdays is her latest book and is the sequel to Shadows of Tomorrow: “When a young woman arrives, claiming to be sent from the future to help them, the Defenders must determine if this is just another trap.

I’m always impressed by the diversity and by the range of female characters in Jess’s works. She is a writer who thinks seriously about how to handle these issues in her works, as well as providing good stories and original science fiction.

Jess is also giving away diverse books every month in 2016 via her tumblr jessicameats

Serene Slumber Party 1: Strong Characters, by Jessica Meats

Jessica Meats

Jessica Meats

A black kitten sleepingMy first Slumber Party guest is Jessica Meats. Jess is an author and computer scientist. I met her through the University of York Creative Writing Society many, many moons ago, where she reads us chapters from early drafts of her first novel Child of the Hive, which she has since published through Book Guild Publishing. She has also written a very successful technical book on electronic forms, Designing Electronic Forms for SharePoint and InfoPath. You can read her writing and review blog at Plot Twister.

Strong Characters

I enjoy books with strong characters (male and female), but there are many types of strength. While it’s great to read about Katniss fighting for survival or Paksenarrion battling armies of orcs, I’d like to highlight a few characters who show different kinds of strength.

~ Akira ~

For my first example, I’d like to look at Shadows on the Moon by Zoe Marriott. It’s not the central character I’ll discuss, but Akira, the beautiful young woman who takes the main character under her wing. Akira was trained as a geisha and makes her way in a world that’s very male-dominated. She uses her skills, her mind and her beauty to navigate the dangerous politics and to help the main
character, Suzume, achieve her goals.

In a society where women have little power, Akira is able to use what she has to her advantage, and to the protection of the women she cares for. Her strength has nothing to do with physical prowess, but is all about how she knows the people and knows how to play them to her advantage. She skilfully manipulates people’s expectations and desires, subtly bending them to her will, but she does so while retaining a sense of kindness.

~ Kami ~

Next, I’ll look at Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan and the central character of Kami. Kami’s strength is two-fold. It comes from her inquisitive mind and her ability to get her friends’ enthusiasm. She wants to be a journalist and starts up a school newspaper, seeking out mysteries to unravel, carefully thinking about the things she sees around her. Then, when adventure starts, she persuades her friends to help out.

Kami ends up being the leader of a little team, working to uncover the strange things happening in their quiet town. Although she is resourceful on her own, she knows she can rely on her friends when she has to. I think this is a really important aspect to her characters and one that deserves highlighting, as a lot of focus tends to be put on the characters who are strong standing alone. Let’s give a little credit to the character whose strength of personality means she doesn’t need to stand alone.

~ Lucy ~

My third example is one of my own, from my upcoming novella Omega Rising (check out the kickstarter project: [/shamelessplug]). Lucy isn’t the main character of the story. She’s the personal assistant of Mrs Grey, who runs the company that the main character goes to work for. Jenny starts off inclined to dismiss Lucy as “just a secretary” but it quickly becomes apparent how important Lucy is to the business. Mrs Grey may give the orders, but it’s Lucy who sees that they’re carried out.

Lucy is the one who knows who everyone in the company is and what they’re working on. She’s the one who can talk to people, play the sympathetic ear, act like the approachable friend and find out what people are really thinking, while reporting straight to the top. She’s a woman who doesn’t hold any official power, but who knows where all the puppet strings lie and exactly how to tweak them.

That’s just a quick look at a few examples of characters who show different kinds of strength. A strong character doesn’t always need a weapon in her hand.