From illness to art: photographing an unbeautiful eating disorder

NSCAD student uses photos of her eating disorder for term project

Meghan Clarkston usually starts her blog posts, where she talks openly about her eating disorder, with a photo of herself or her art. Photo: Meghan Clarkston.

Curled up within a cozy leather chair at Starbucks, Meghan Clarkston is in her own little world, oblivious to the people bustling around her.

She puts her pen to paper, forming black lines of varying thickness - it's the start of another work of art.

Meghan has struggled with bulimia for five years, and with anorexia three years before that. Art is a distraction, she says. It is something that comforts her and keeps her mind occupied.

Her recent routine has been to eat one "meal" a day: an oatcake for breakfast. Then she goes about her day at school or work, gets really stressed out, then binge eats and purges.

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Meghan has put together 12 images for her body of work on bulimia. This is one of the less graphic ones. Photo: Meghan Clarkston.

 

Unlike most people with an eating disorder, she talks openly about it. This term, the 26-year-old NSCAD student took her openness one step further by documenting her bingeing and purging as a photography project.

Meghan says the art is hard to digest, especially for people who aren't used to seeing it.

The first photographs are of Meghan perched on the rim of her bathtub, pinning up her dyed red hair and staring at the toilet next to her. She then photographs her stomach before and after bingeing.

After consuming 12 pounds of food in one sitting her abdomen is noticeably expanded. The most shocking image is after she purges; she vomits into a clear plastic bag and holds it next to her now slender stomach.

Then came what she describes as "D-Day:" when she revealed her body of work to the class.

In her blog that night, Meghan wrote, "Sitting in such an intimate class, awaiting the moment to produce a series of 12 images was debilitating. Usually I remain calm and composed when addressing my disorder. It's become such a fixture of my life, that to me, this is normal... But somehow the act of recording the ritual on film produced an honesty I wasn't entirely ready to, well, digest."

After showing her work to the class, Meghan said, "I felt really guilty because it was a shock that I wasn't expecting. [My professor] started to cry, which I felt really bad about. And then everybody had that kind of ‘uhhhh' shock. They couldn't stop looking at it."

Her professor, Susan McEachern, said, "It's very strong work. I find it courageous."

Meghan says she undertook this project to raise awareness and truly show a disorder that a lot of people don't know personally.

Even though the project was meant more for other people, it affected her in a way she hadn't anticipated. After posting the images on her blog, Meghan received many emails.

Some were from other people with eating disorders who said the photographs inspired them to try and overcome their own disorders. When Meghan received these responses, she decided to try and get better too.

Meghan says the photos didn't really affect her until she revealed them to her class and her professor started crying. After that class, Meghan went home and started bawling.

She compares it to when, as a child, you fall down and you feel fine until everyone asks, "Are you OK? Are you OK?"

"You'd be fine if nobody said anything and you were just like whatever. But no, it's that human aspect when other people start connecting with it that makes it real."

The combination of emails from others with eating disorders and reactions of classmates to her project (as well as the support from an old flame who recently found Meghan through Facebook) has pushed her to change.

Last week, Meghan went to seek professional help and she may leave school next term to receive in-patient care.

According to the Nova Scotia-based Eating Disorders Action Group, the prevalence of eating disorders in women 15-29 years old is 3 to 10 per cent. The waiting list for in-patient care at the Queen Elizabeth II is at least a month.

Before Meghan delved into documenting her bingeing and purging, she knew there was a risk that the project could push her back to anorexia. Although she didn't think it was a valid risk, perhaps it was.

At one point during the project she went three days without eating anything and lost a few pounds.

People noticed.

"Going through that stress and realizing that, even though I think I'm fine and in control of things, I'm not," she said.

Meghan has received a lot of negative emails about her blog as well, some even saying she should kill herself. Some of her blog readers with eating disorders criticized her work, saying that it pushed them further into their disorder.

To that, Meghan responds, "But anybody who has an eating disorder knows that the only thing that is going to trigger you is yourself."

Her work will most likely be exhibited at NSCAD, in February.

"I'm really nervous about this gallery show," she said. "I'm hoping that it will push people to try and get help, but at the same time I'm prepared for all the negative backlash that will come with it."

 

Comments on this story are now closed

I never would have guessed that the prevalence of anorexia was so high! I'm glad we have courageous artists like Meghan around to ring the bell, and shine a light on the dark things in our world. I wish I could have been in that room on "D-Day".

Posted by SWAiL | Dec 1, 2021

:) Thanks so much for sharing my story and taking an interest regarding eating disorders Michelle! Well done! Look forward to reading more of your work.

Posted by Meghan | Dec 1, 2021

As a sufferer of anorexia and bulimia, I personally appreciate the honesty and down right courage this young lady has taken. In my opinion, she has taken a risk by exposing herself and in hopes of helping herself, she truly is reaching out in hopes of saving others! I happen to be a reader of her blog and have learned a lot from her as well as WITH her. Those with backlash deserve to be shown the junk mail folder. Well written interview w/ Meghan.

Posted by Jessi | Dec 1, 2021