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Eating Disorders and Real-Life Reading

As a Knowledge Exchange Fellow for 2014-15, Emily Troscianko developed a partnership with Beat, the UK’s leading eating-disorders charity. The negative effects of mass-media representations of idealised female bodies are relatively well researched from clinical and social-sciences perspectives, but there’s little research on how reading literature (including anything on the spectrum from fiction or memoir featuring protagonists with impossible bodies and dysfunctional eating habits, to fiction or poetry about far-removed experiences and fantastical worlds) may affect eating-disorder outcomes – either negatively or positively. On the literary studies side, in turn, there’s not yet been much systematic exploration of how personal history and commitments are always inherent to reading (including professional critical reading) and therefore to literary interpretation in all its forms. 

In this project, TORCH and Beat together began a long-overdue investigation of how fiction-reading affects and is affected by readers’ mental health. Specifically, the collaboration involved running a large-scale online survey to find out how people perceive the connections between their reading habits and their mental health. Drawing on Emily’s past experience of anorexia and her research profile in cognitive literary studies, together with Beat’s substantial public and professional infrastructure and connections, the project generated two-way benefits for the study of literature and the study and treatment of eating disorders. In particular, the findings suggested a significant difference between the potentially strongly negative effects of reading fiction about eating disorders and the potentially positive effects of reading one’s preferred type of other fiction.

You can find out more about the resulting publications and related writing and research under the News and Blog tabs, or on Emily’s website, here