Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted is infamously canonized as the eating disorder memoir bible. My own copy of Wasted is tattered and dog-eared and stained. Passages are highlighted and underlined, with little notes in the margins. I have read Wasted five or six times. Each time has been during a hostile takeover by my eating disorder.
My first reading of Wasted felt like coming home. My wannarexia made me scour the internet for the gruesome details of strangers’ eating disorders but the tabloid headlines and Dr. Phil scandals were too shallow, only a book-length drama could possibly satisfy me.
The pleasure of reading Wasted whilst in the midst of an eating disorder is difficult to explain. Is it that I felt understood? That it included enough details of Hornbacher’s behaviors to propel my own disorder? Was it the exhibitionism? Something as simple as the pleasure derived from juicy gossip? I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Hornbacher has been accused of creating a “guidebook,” leading impressionable teens down the rabbit hole of bulimia and anorexia. She details carrot sticks and mustard and running five miles twice a day as staples to her own anorexia. She describes eating a bright colored food first during a binge as a marker that all the food is out when you bring it back up. Certainly, these details are vivid enough that they could be taken as instructional. I admit, someone could read this paragraph and apply those details to their own life.
I did. I first read Wasted in high school and remember dutifully noting that Hornbacher ate non-fat yogurt. So after cheerleading practice I would stop only at trendy self-serve yogurt bars. When my hands began to shake from coffee overload and nutrient deprivation, I smiled thinking of Hornbacher’s descriptions of her own shaking hands. I thought, this is working.
It doesn’t help that Hornbacher is such a dreamy writer. Despite the gruesomeness of her disorder, she aligns her experiences with the topsy-turvy world of Alice in Wonderland and a bad acid trip. She writes of a mania that perfectionist eating disordered candidates idolize. The starving artist remains a captivating ideal. As a writer myself, the descriptions of Hornbacher’s all night mania and caffeine-fueled writing escapades captivated me.
Despite the attraction I found to the book, I think condemning it entirely overlooks the power of empathy the book can achieve. For those whose brains are not warped by a disorder, the horror of Hornbacher’s experiences can help people understand the hell-like state an eating disorder really is. At the times of reading the book, I wasn’t ready for recovery, but the book provided a sort-of solstice in that I wasn’t facing my issues alone. Someone else had walked down a darker path than me.
Reading an eating disorder memoir is ultimately your decision. Mental illnesses are notoriously self-effacing so you may not recognize your own vulnerability to such content. But if you do have the self-awareness (which I did not, whoops) to know that reading this will throw you into a self-starvation tailspin, I would suggest maybe not picking up the book. Or pick it up and if calorie-counts start dancing in your head, please (for the love of God) put it down.