THE WRITER ALICE GREGORY once called anorexia “the impossible subject.” Writing about the disease was difficult, she suggested, because “unlike other kinds of addictions, anorexia disguises itself as virtue.” Accounts of eating disorders tend to use language associated with self-improvement and discipline, and risk romanticising the illness.
While shooting “The Girls of Malawa”—a photo project that documents young women with eating disorders—the Danish photographer Marie Hald realised that illnesses involving aspirations for the body are inextricable from notions of the self. “With my camera as my tool I discovered that anorexia and bulimia has little to do with the actual body but much more to do with control and perfection,” she said.
Her project documents girls with anorexia and bulimia during their time at Drzewo Zycia—Tree of Life—a facility in Malawa, Poland. They spent up to two months there getting treatment and therapy. The space was set up by a woman whose daughter had also suffered from bulimia and had to be treated in the United States because they could not find an adequate facility in Poland.
One image shows two girls in the shadows, in front of a table, with one’s hand hovering tentatively above a plastic bag of food. Hald explained that breakfast is the only meal where the girls were allowed to eat what they wanted, and even deciding on a breakfast topping represented a difficult choice. The girls had five meals a day, and were asked to sit down for an hour after every meal to prevent anyone acting on an impulse to vomit. They also attended regular therapy sessions, as individuals and in groups.
According to Hald, the patients appeared very motivated about recovering, particularly as they had had long battles with the illnesses, and some had been hospitalised previously. As a result, most of them were intellectually aware of their disorders, yet “struggling so much not to listen to the voices inside their heads telling them to avoid eating.”