BY: DUSTIN BATTY
Eating disorders are such a taboo topic that people who struggle with them are usually hesitant to confide in even close friends or family. Kara-lee MacDonald, a young woman from northern British Columbia, combats this stigma with her debut book of poetry, Eating Matters. Published in October 2016, this book describes in unfiltered detail her struggles with bulimia. MacDonald agreed to share some of her thoughts in an interview, during which we discussed Eating Matters, eating disorders, and the aspects of our society that allow such disorders not only to exist, but to flourish.
MacDonald, 26, is new to the ranks of creative writing; her usual pursuits are more academic. She recently completed a Master of Arts degree in English Literature at the University of Northern British Columbia. Her thesis, “Distinguished Cuisines,” analyzes the use of food as a symbol of social status in Young Adult high-society fiction. Thus, she has a strong grasp of the academic research in both critical theory and gender theory that addresses eating disorders and our society’s relationship with food. That knowledge, combined with her personal experiences with bulimia, adds depth to her poetry and gives her voice some weight.
Before discussing Eating Matters, it is important to understand what an eating disorder is. According to the American Psychological Association website, an eating disorder is a mental illness that involves “abnormal eating habits that can threaten your health or even your life.” “Almost everyone worries about their weight occasionally,” the website continues. “People with eating disorders take such concerns to extremes.” Although many men have very little knowledge about eating disorders, MacDonald learned from her research that “upwards of forty per cent of women struggle with [an eating disorder] at some point in their lives to some degree.” Eating disorders range from binge eating to anorexia and bulimia; many of the different disorders are listed on the National Eating Disorder Information Centre website.
The eating disorder addressed in Eating Matters is bulimia, which MacDonald has been struggling with for many years. Bulimia is a body image or weight-centred mental illness that involves a cycle of patterned behaviour: Food restriction, followed by binge eating, followed immediately by purging. With her poetry, MacDonald goes far beyond providing a simple definition for bulimia; she gives insight into the mental processes that accompany bulimia, and how the struggle feels.
MacDonald used a wide range of poetic forms and stylistic approaches when writing Eating Matters. Sometimes serious, often tinged with a dark or gritty humour, the book is an exploration of her experiences with bulimia. I asked her how autobiographical Eating Matters was. “It depends on your definition of autobiographical,” she said. “There are sections of the book that are fictional….it’s not a memoir. The poems that deal with specific circumstances, that use pronouns like ‘she,’ and that seem like they’re grounded in reality, probably are, is what I would say. There are also poems that are about dreams, [and] there’s one poem where I imagine myself throwing up in a garbage can in some kind of grungy downtown park when the ghost of Princess Diana walks up and starts talking to me, which is obviously not something that really happened. So, I mean, it is autobiographical if by autobiographical you mean it is a representation of some part of me, which it is, in every way.” Eating Matters is authentic, witty, and completely honest, even in its fictions.
It is this bare-all approach that makes MacDonald’s work so effective; where others tip-toe around the topic or avoid it altogether, MacDonald takes us right to the centre of the issue and shows us around. She describes the techniques that some people use to purge, as well as some techniques for avoiding bulimic episodes. Most significantly, she conveys how bulimia feels, the counterintuitive combination of shame and relief, self-awareness and lack of control.
Eating Matters began as a therapeutic technique MacDonald’s therapist suggested to help her deal with her bulimia. A previous therapist had her try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which involves writing yourself self-affirming messages, and “positive talk, positive thinking,” but the technique did not work for MacDonald. “The problem is that I’m cynical and self-aware, so CBT doesn’t work,” she told me. “I can’t do it. I think everything you say to me is bullshit.” So when her new therapist asked her to write about her experiences instead, she went all in. And it worked.
“I was house-sitting at Barry McKinnon’s house—he’s a really influential Northern BC poet. I was house-sitting for Barry, his cat, Cutie, beside me on his couch, watching Gilmore Girls, writing a poem. I might sit in that same spot for like, three, four hours,” she said. “I’d write madly, watch some show, write, write, write. That was all time that was focused on something that was much more positive than obsessively cooking food and eating it and purging it, right, this sort of cycle. And if I stayed on that couch for three or four hours, that’s three or four hours that I avoided being bulimic.”
She says she first shared her work because she was proud of it and wanted to know whether or not it was any good. “I was proud of it, I was proud that I had kind of done something that I felt like was in some way addressing the eating disorder, and I guess I wanted to share that with people, I don’t know, because I had shared that I was suffering with people. And I wanted to show them that I had maybe taken steps to kind of try to change things. And I wanted to see if it was shit or not.” Luckily, poet Rob Budde, her friend and mentor, encouraged her to continue writing, and Eating Matters was born.
Despite the fact that MacDonald is new both to writing poetry and to authorship, the book has been generally well-received. Readers not only enjoy the poetry, but also take something away from it. “I think it’s really great how much it seems to have touched other women, specifically, and seems to have educated men around me.” MacDonald is glad that her work has had a positive effect on others: “I guess the best outcome of this has been that maybe I got to help one or two women deal with anything at all.”
One young woman approached her after the book launch in Prince George and told her how strongly Eating Matters affected her. “She is sixteen,” MacDonald told me. “Beautiful little thing, she’s just lovely. Comes up to me, she’s totally shy, like clutching my book to her chest, and just comes up and she wants me to sign it, right? And she starts talking to me a little bit, and she tells me that it was just really powerful for her, and that she really connected to it, you know, and basically that she was just hoping that I would sign the book and that she was terrified. And it was so cute, because she was treating me like I was some kind of celebrity or something, and it was just so uncomfortable, because I’m so not.”
The reason MacDonald’s poetry is so powerful is because it openly addresses a typically taboo topic. She believes that the stigma surrounding eating disorders is the result of our society’s obsession with food. “We love food. We love talking about food. We talk a lot about food. We watch cooking shows, we have holidays that surround food, we have—any kind of social gathering: ‘Let’s go for dinner! Let’s go for dinner and drinks! You want to come over and have appies and play games?’ Food is so important to us as a social thing that, I don’t know, to have to accommodate somebody who has an eating disorder is actually, you know, it makes the person who’s suffering from the eating disorder feel like they are a burden,” she told me. “But also, I mean, it’s a mental illness. It’s one of those things that’s misunderstood, like lots of other things. And one of those things where lots of blame is placed on the person who suffers….and so, why would you address it? Right? Like, when you’re shamed out of it, or blamed for it, why speak out against it? Why talk about it, right?”
But it is something that we should talk about. “I think that it’s really important that we talk about it,” MacDonald said. “I think that it needs to not be shamed. I think that it needs to be something that’s addressed more and more and more, until there are enough supports within the system itself.” Ignoring mental illnesses does not make them go away; in fact, it makes them worse. People who are able to open up about their eating disorder can develop a support system that can help them, but this trend towards silence makes people think they are alone, with no one they can turn to without facing judgement. But judgement is not what MacDonald saw when she shared her poetry at a reading: “People weren’t judgemental at all. At the unpublished reading, people were so cool. So cool. Not judgey at all. In fact, very few people [have] judged me.”
MacDonald hopes that her work will help end the stigma surrounding eating disorders, and inspire others to realize that they are not alone in the world, and that they can find help if they look for it. She wants more people to start speaking publically about eating disorders and mental illnesses more generally. “I think it’s time for somebody else to have a voice now. I think that I don’t need to say much more about it. I think that I’m pretty much done being a spokeswoman. I don’t want to claim to be a spokeswoman,” she told me. “I don’t try to talk about experiences—and in fact I try very hard to avoid—sort of talking about it in a really broad sense, like it’s the sweeping general narrative for bulimic women, or for eating disorder sufferers, right? I don’t want to claim that. I have no authority on that. I know what it’s like for me, and the book is a way for me to express that to other people.” She believes that the more openly people talk about it, the easier it will be for people who struggle with eating disorders to find the help they need.
MacDonald is open about the fact that bulimia is something that she still struggles with. “I don’t like to be the girl who talks about a book that she wrote about bulimia, and presents herself as being like, ‘Oh, and this is what I did to fix myself, and here I am, and now I’m fantastic, and all you bitches still suffering are still suffering and too bad for you because you didn’t figure it out.’ No. I didn’t figure it out. It was something that helped me at the time, and that I’m glad that I did, and that I’m really proud of, but [bulimia is] certainly not something that’s gone from my life,” she told me. “On a very practical, like, day-to-day level, [writing the book] was helpful. And still, reading and writing, to me, today—right?—are just as important, just as helpful…. I’m distracted when I’m teaching, you know, marking, doing online discussion posts, those sorts of things, so things related to my job. When I’m writing my own stuff—which I still write today, it’s just not about bulimia—and when I’m reading books, those are what distract me.”
Eating Matters is an important book, both entertaining and educational. It is a brave, unforgiving challenge to the social stigmas that surround eating disorders. It is a glimpse into the mind of an intelligent young woman struggling with bulimia. And its positive reception provides hope that the eating disorder stigma could end, if enough people start talking about it.