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.”
Photographs of people with severe eating disorders make for difficult viewing. Hald’s series contains several images of the girls relaxing outdoors during breaks between meals, although in some of these they look distressed or pensive. In others, the physiological effects of the conditions they are struggling with are glaringly obvious from their underweight bodies. Additionally, it isn’t easy to overlook the fact that you are looking at photographs of people who themselves often have conflicted relationships with images. Although the media industry has a long history of bombarding consumers with images of thinness, the social-media generation is faced with the new pressure of being active participants in this phenomenon. (Although Instagram attempted to combat this by banning search terms related to negative body-image, such as “pro-anorexia” and “thinspiration,” other variants cropped up immediately.)
Hald’s work addresses this issue too. A 16-year-old in the series recounts that she had tried to emulate models and celebrities, not knowing that their photographs were edited. Hald, who spent a month taking pictures at Drzewo Zycia in the summer of 2015, was acutely aware that images and appearances played a critical role in the girls’ lives. “I had to be very careful not to step over their boundaries and be sure that they were okay with being in my story,” she told me. “I, of course, worried about their reactions to the story when I showed them the results ready for the exhibition, but I am so happy that all of them reacted so positively towards the images.”
In another project, “A New Me,” Hald documented participants’ experiences at a weight-loss camp in Utah in the United States. She also explored the opposite end of the spectrum in her work “In Fat Front,” which looks closely at a recent wave of “fat activism”: people fighting for the right to be fat and accepted as they are, on social media and otherwise.
People’s relationships with their bodies is a recurring preoccupation in Hald’s work, and ties into her larger interest in societal notions of perfectionism and how they relate to gender. But it is also a theme that requires focussing on people’s vulnerabilities. When I asked her how she navigates around photographing intensely personal subjects, she write, “I often worry that people will think I get too close (because I do get very close) but they never actually have.”