By Rebecca Kaplan
Content Warning: This piece discusses eating disorders, with a focus on purging for weight-loss
The supermodel Ashley Crawford, a.k.a. Big Bertha, or sometimes just Bertha, is part of the Detroit-based superhero team currently known as the Great Lakes Champions, or X-Men, or Avengers (no one can keep it straight). As the Tony Stark of the GLA, Bertha bankrolls the team with the money she earns from her very successful modeling career – yeah, she’s one badass bitch both on and off the catwalk, despite her history of mutant bulimia.
If you haven’t heard of Big Bertha and the rest of the GLA, then you’re not alone. Clint Barton and Marvel’s massive legal team worked hard to keep it that way, and the flyover Avengers have had mostly scattered appearances since their less than mundane introduction to save Hawkeye and Mockingbird’s marriage. However, in the GLA’s first appearance, Bertha pulls some of the best superhero moves in the Marvel Multiverse. My version of “Pop, Pop!”
To Me, Big Bertha’s Bulimia Made Her a Hero
In 1989, Marvel Comics introduced Ashley Crawford in West Coast Avengers #46. In Big Bertha’s introduction, she can manipulate her size at-will, granting her superhuman strength and endurance. However, her superpower comes with a catch: she can only go back to her lower body weight by vomiting. Although we don’t see it in this issue, in the character’s early depictions, Bertha is explicitly drawn making herself throw up to return to a lower body weight, an inner battle the character struggles with from the moment she smashes onto the scene. But, eventually, she rejects the Ashley Crawford identity (who, by the point of the rejection, is a plus-size model) entirely, and she changes her legal name to Bertha Crawford in Great Lakes Avengers #1.
This character spoke to me as a kid who wanted to be a dancer, but whose body was never enough: never skinny enough, never the right proportions, and never the right pain tolerance – thanks to a combo of low of food intake and endometriosis, which was already engulfing my nerves and organs, even if I didn’t know it.
Like me, who was raised in a dance world influenced by the legacy of George Balanchine (just read this article for explanation), Bertha was also raised in a world of child stars, celebutants, artists, and wannabes dying to be thin. And, she was bound by “the way females are portrayed in these things.” However, the key difference is that Bertha has superpowers, and she can actually vomit herself skinny… As I battled my own demons, I found her story empowering because it meant that someone in recovery for an eating disorder could be a rolemodel for others.
Although I wasn’t living that life yet, it was the life I hoped to live. When I was introduced to the character, my situation felt more akin to Tigra’s over at the West Coast Avengers compound, in which food control was a warning sign of much deeper institutional trauma. Over at the West Coast compound, John Walker – who only recently joined the team – is already up to his military man tricks, making value judgments on diets that are new to him, exclaiming, “That’s…Disgusting! Whatever her physical attributes, Tigra is a human being! She should not be eating raw mice!” before he physically restrains her from eating. Fuck off, John Walker. This panel fills me with rage.
And yeah, those storylines can be interpreted as fatphobic, but reasonable minds can disagree, and it was also comforting to someone with an eating disorder trying to find their story on the pages of Marvel Comics. To me, Bertha proved to be a feminist from the jump: she didn’t let anyone tell her or her teammates what to do. Not even Hawkeye or Mockingbird, and for someone trying to find empowerment in a disorder that often leaves one feeling so powerless, the text read as a young woman who wouldn’t even let bulimia get her down.
As I battled through recovery, I appreciated that Bertha was always about more than her bulimia (see G.L.A. (2005) #3). She was also about the control the patriarchy uses to exert impossible beauty standards over people’s bodies. While future depictions of the character sometimes bordered on insensitive, the inner battle between Ashley Crawford and Bertha is something other body dysmorphic disorder sufferers might relate to because it mirrors the battle for power occurring in the debates over the artistic depiction of marginalized bodies.
The Importance of Media Literacy in Treating Eating Disorders
As someone with long-lasting – and sometimes disabling – impacts from the physical effects of their eating disorder, it’s hard not to feel angry that my diagnosis was stalled for years. However, through years of isolation, comics offered much needed company when it was too hard to explain my disordered eating to others, and sequential art is still my savior in recovery, and luckily, the science backs me up! Throughout my ongoing healing process, comic books – plus, my extensive head canon – continue to save me from a lot of things daily.
Eating disorders are about more than food. At their core, they’re about undue influence of body weight and shape on self-worth, distortion of body image, and pervasive thoughts about weight gain or loss. However, eating disorders have been historically neglected in research, especially in proportion to their public health burden, and the few studies that have been performed have only focused on women. Thus, anorexia really isn’t only a young, rich, white girl disease, people just have that misconception because the nosology of eating disorders evolved based on female symptom profiles, with normative data on older individuals, males, LGBTQ+, and minority groups lacking despite the fact that no group is immune to the deadly condition.
Eating disorders don’t discriminate, impacting people from all backgrounds regardless of age, race, sexuality, gender identity, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or location – and all bodies, including people living in larger bodies. Comic books can provide more than comfort; they can also raise awareness of eating disorders by educating the public to help get lifesaving resources to all people who need them. Although Ashley Crawford is not the stereotype of a person with an eating disorder, many eating disorder patients live in a larger body like Bertha, and some, like me, have brains that can’t see the difference.
When treating eating disorders, it’s important to consider the media’s role in maintaining unhealthy beauty standards. Through media literacy training, patients are taught to decode the images they see, learning that all images are constructed through a deliberate, well-researched process that’s mostly driven by profit. And, research suggests that media literacy training can improve self-esteem and body image, which is where comic books and superhero movies come in, using utilization theory.
In psychology, utilization is the idea that therapists should use the culture and/or language of their client to help their client meet therapeutic goals, according to Robin Shapiro. One way therapists use utilization theory is to re-interpret fictional concepts through a lens that their client can already relate to, like using comic book storylines in eating disorder treatment. For example, sexual assault and trauma are closely linked with eating disorders, particularly those characterized by binge eating and purging type symptoms. A therapist could use WCA #46 to explain these concepts to a new patient, creating a common language using the comic page. In this issue, Hawkeye and Mockingbird are having relationship problems stemming from the assault Bobbi Morse experienced as a member of the Avengers. A skilled therapist could draw a connection between trauma and the development of eating disorders by examining why Bobbi’s trauma didn’t lead her to develop an eating disorder and Bertha’s trauma caused her to develop bulimia through a role playing game with patients that gets at the core of women’s roles in society.
It’s also possible to use existing media to engage people with the idea that print models are altered, making them unrealistic depictions of the human body. One study found it a (somewhat) effective strategy to provide people with a new framework for interpreting media images and messages, including creating your own alter ego, and writing comics.
Monkey Joe Says: “Eating Disorders Are Never Funny”
Disordered eating has become normalized in our culture, but eating disorders are treatable mental illnesses. In our wellness-obsessed, do-it-yourself culture, the public sometimes misconstrues this fact, believing that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice. Although I might remember the first time anorexia became my answer to life’s woes, the eating disorder took on a life of its own, and quickly, and things could have been different. Anorexia and other eating disorders are serious – often fatal – illnesses associated with severe changes in behavior, which are significantly more treatable with early diagnosis and intervention. Over ten years later, and well into my recovery experience, the severe physical impacts of the eating disorder linger, and my past preoccupation with food is still shaping my life today in unexpected ways.
It’s important to remember that eating disorders aren’t just extreme diets (even if they sometimes manifest that way), but instead, they are extreme ways of finding control when a person’s surrounding environment(s) seem insurmountable. As people continue to make sense of lingering uncertainty from 2020, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis continues to impact our collective unconscious, and our wellbeing. In addition to a national rise in anxiety and depression, people with eating disorders have also been disproportionately affected by quarantine.
I’ve found solace in sequential art stories of fictional heroes and maybe you can too, although cape comics aren’t always known for accurate depictions of the human body. Marvel Comics writer Kelly Thompson‘s essay “She Has No Head! – No, It’s Not Equal” explores some of these issues, as does Black culture writer Jordan Calhoun‘s essay “On Body Image, Diversity, and Comics’ Outdated Standard of Beauty.” While indie and webcomics handle the nuances of intersectionality better than major publishers, the visibility of Marvel Comics makes any character on its roster important in the discussion on comic book therapy (yes, self-help bibliotherapy is a real thing) for eating disorders, and Big Bertha is just one example of a character that may be beneficial to eating disorder patients despite popular belief.
A 2018 Journal of Eating Disorders article stated:
Surprisingly, fiction about eating disorders was perceived by respondents as broadly detrimental to mood, self-esteem, feelings about their bodies, and diet and exercise habits, while respondents’ preferred genre of other fiction was experienced as beneficial to mood and broadly neutral on the other three dimensions.
It’s clear that my story isn’t singular, and people with disordered eating don’t always want realistic depictions of their struggles in art. Sometimes, a metaphor is less triggering than graphic representations of eating disorders. After years of personal struggle, my body has changed, and even “graphic medicine” images can trigger a physical response that is out of my control.
If you are struggling and need immediate help, check out the National Eating Disorders Association’s Resource Page.
West Coast Avengers #46: Franchise
Written and pencilled by John Byrne
Inked by Mike Machlan
Coloured by Bob Sharen
Lettered by Bill Oakley
Rebecca Kaplan (she/her) is an eating disorder patient. She has a Master of Science in Criminology and Juris Doctor, but really prefers comics. To the disappointment of her law school, she’s really a geek at heart and would rather have a cup of coffee with Captain Janeway than any non-fiction person. You can find her writing online at MarvelBlog, StarTrek.com, Comics Bookcase, Prism Comics, and in “Double Challenge: Being LGBTQ and a Minority”, which she co-authored with her wife, Avery Kaplan. You can find her on Twitter here!
Thank you to Samantha Puc for her assistance with this piece. You can find Samantha on Twitter here!
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