Art and Eating Disorders: A Self-advocacy Campaign Through Video Narratives

Sarah Pray is in her second year as the SIUE Women’s Studies Program’s Graduate Assistant. Her work has been invaluable. Pray is completing her M.A. in Art Therapy at SIUE. Here, she discusses her thesis project, a series of films about people using art to work through disordered eating, and provides links to some clips. She also provides further sources at the bottom for anyone interested in learning more.

During my second and third year of graduate school in the SIUE art therapy program, I became interested in the ways that advocacy, art, and one’s personal recovery from an eating disorder can intersect and support one other.  The question guiding the inquiry became “can video shorts of artists who have struggled with an eating disorder document authentic stories of recovery, provide a supportive and creative environment to the artists, and increase public awareness of eating disorders?” In collaboration with the Emily Program Foundation, an advocacy non-profit organization in St. Paul, Minnesota, we initiated a pilot project called Art and Eating Disorders. Between August 3rd and 7th 2015, we recruited five artists to record their narrative and share related creative work. One of the artists provided a father’s perspective, a heartfelt testimonial of the experience of supporting his daughter through recovery. The recordings were then edited into short videos and full audio interviews that were implemented to The Emily Program Foundation website and presented at various events. In this entry, I present major themes that came out of this project as well as short video clips.

Personally, I was surprised to hear just how much impact the creative arts had on the artists’ experiences. Discussions about art did not feel like side notes, but rather an integrated and important factor in their stories. I was surprised, namely, because I had doubts about the importance of art within my own recovery story.  At times, I have dismissed my interest in songwriting because, in some ways, I had used it as an excuse to isolate when I was struggling.  In hearing others’ stories, I recognize that, while I may have used art destructively, art has also given me an identity and purpose, a space to express and understand my feelings, a sense of control, self-efficacy, and confidence. I consider their willingness to share their stories a gift toward understanding and accepting my own story as an artist.

The treatment of eating disorders has long suffered from a lack of understanding that has resulted in unsupported and even destructive insurance practices. Such misunderstanding about the serious nature of the disease breeds stigma and shame, impeding individuals from seeking treatment (Missouri Eating Disorder Association, n.d.).  Personal self-narratives have proved to be an important tool for decreasing stigma and increasing understanding of serious mental illness (Pandya, 2012). In conjunction, art-making and art therapy can offer individuals the opportunity to create an expressive and assertive voice while shifting blame from the self to the disorder.

The Artists                   

Deborah’s Story

Through her jewelry making and fiber art, Deborah has found a meditative and confidence-boosting practice that has helped her throughout her journey in overcoming an eating disorder.

Joey’s Story

Joey and his daughter listen and connect to each other through art, along a journey that can hold both joy and sadness.

Kelly’s Story

Through the creative adventures of painting and drawing, Kelly has found a process of reflection and expression that has helped her throughout her journey in overcoming an eating disorder.

Kristine’s Story

Through songwriting and musical collaboration with her sisters, Kristine has rediscovered her voice–a voice to fight back against an eating disorder, and a voice to center herself in the present moment.

Marsha’s Story

Through creative writing, Marsha has found a place to identify and express her emotions throughout her journey in overcoming an eating disorder.

After the videos were completed, I wanted to better understand the themes that the artists had discussed in terms of supportive factors in their recovery, causes of the eating disorder, and the role of art in their recovery. Below are the word clouds I generated from analyzing the full audio interviews of the four artists in recovery.

Themes in Recovery



Figure 1. The words are direct quotes from the interviews. Each color represents a different artist. The quotes are grouped into themes and sequenced in order of how many artists commented on a particular theme. “ED” stands for eating disorder.


Etiology of the Eating Disorder


Figure 2. The words are direct quotes from the interviews. Each color represents a different artist. The quotes are grouped into themes and sequenced in order of how many artists commented on a particular theme. “ED” stands for eating disorder.


The Role of Art in Recovery

Art Themes sans Joey 2

Figure 3. The words are direct quotes from the interviews. Each color represents a different artist. The quotes are grouped into themes and sequenced in order of how many artists commented on a particular theme. “ED” stands for eating disorder.                   


Through the film making process, I learned that there is a space in which advocacy, the arts, and personal wellbeing may grow together. The recording process allowed the artists to further explore their story, or build confidence in telling it. The artists also identified many more roles of art in their recovery than were specified in the art therapy literature—themes such as playfulness and adventure, social aspects of sharing and receiving feedback, empowerment, meaning-making, art as a meditative practice, and a way to gain a sense of control, identity, self-efficacy, confidence, and motivation to continue the recovery journey.  Just as art-making can provide the tools for individuals to define recovery for themselves, advocacy-work can provide the conduit for sharing that definition with others–both art and advocacy a means to exploring, expressing, and experiencing empowerment (Peters & Fallon, 1994).

At the same time, public response to the videos demonstrated increased understanding of the complexity and subjective nature of eating disorder recovery as well as the varied ways in which art can support overcoming an eating disorder.  In short, reducing stigma is an important aspect of recovery from an eating disorder. Advocacy work may lessen the divide between those labeled healthy and sick, in effect reducing the very real effects of shame for those who suffer (Goodman, Glenn, Bohlig, Banyard, & Borges, 2009; Pandya & Myrick, 2013; Perlick, 2001).



Emily Program Foundation. (2014). Retrieved from

Goodman, L. A., Glenn, C., Bohlig, A., Banyard, V., & Borges, A. (2009). Feminist relational advocacy: Processes and outcomes from the perspective of low-income women with depression. The Counseling Psychologist, 37(6), 848–876. doi:10.1177/0011000008326325

Missouri Eating Disorder Association. (n.d.) Advocacy.  Retrieved from

Pandya, A. (2012). NAMI in our own voice and NAMI smarts for advocacy: Self-narrative as advocacy tool. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 18(6), 448–450. doi:10.1097/01.pra.0000422744.79871.1a

Pandya, A., & Myrick, K. J. (2013). Wellness and recovery programs: A model of self-advocacy for people living with mental illness. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 19(3), 242–246.

Perlick, D. A., Rosenheck, R. A., Clarkin, J. F., Sirey, J. A., Salahi, J., Struening, E. L., & Link, B. G. (2001). Stigma as a barrier to recovery: adverse effects of perceived stigma on social adaptation of persons diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder. Psychiatric services.

Peters, L. & Fallon, P. (1994). The Journey of recovery: Dimensions of change. In P. Fallon, M. Katzman, & S. Wooley (Eds.), Feminist perspectives on eating disorders (pp. 339-351). New York, NY: Guilford Press.




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