Lighter Than My Shadow by Katie Green (review)
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Reviewed by
Katie Green, Lighter Than My Shadow. London: Jonathan Cape, 2013, 528 pp. £20.00 paper.

At first glance, British comics artist Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow seems to join an established tradition of autobiographical memoirs about anorexia, sometimes referred to as “treatment texts.”1 Critics have expressed uneasiness about whether this genre not-so-inadvertently glamorizes the fantasy of control, which enables the text to function as thinspiration for readers with disordered eating habits. In How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia (2013), Kelsey Osgood argues that the typical anorexia memoir—characterized by intimate first-person monologue and fragmentary poetics—feels more war story than cautionary tale, with the text serving as material proof of the author’s transcendent recovery. Against the conventions of its genre, then, Lighter Than My Shadow refuses romantic clichés that tie anorexia to aesthetic vision. Not only is Katie’s anorexia explicitly shown to be paralyzing to her artistic imagination and self confidence (pp. 82–83), but Green also chooses to tell her story through the medium of comics, an aesthetic choice that foregrounds the relationship between textual form and the corporeal body. Through its disruption of the treatment text’s generic conventions, Lighter Than My Shadow destabilizes the narrative assumptions underwriting representations of disordered eating that rely upon the body’s elision.

Fans of Green’s whimsical zine The Green Bean (2010–present) may be surprised, but certainly not disappointed by her darker long-form project. Structured around her struggles with anorexia from a childhood of picky eating to the present, Lighter Than My Shadow was initially envisioned as a prose piece, but Green later reimagined it through comics. The psychic and literal weight of the book—well over 500 pages—is counterbalanced by her fragile linework and pared-down language. In addition, the dialogic nature of the comics form allows her to discompose the boundary between mind and body by twisting their representational relationship.2 For example, the disjunction between Katie’s self-deluding assurances—“just . . . a few more days . . . I’ll feel better . . . clean and healthy” (p. 339)—and the images of her emaciated limbs and drawn face insistently remind readers that the body cannot simply evaporate. While anorexia seeks to negate the body, Lighter Than My Shadow works against this nullification through its silent-but-tangible representation of symptoms such as hair loss (p. 121) and lanugo (downy body hair that grows as a result of malnourishment [p. 136]).

While the images and words contradict one another in some places, in others, Green uses the comic form to blur imagination and reality. By folding them into each other, she frustrates the reader’s ability to maintain an objective distance from Katie’s subjectivity. Often, the visual effect is harrowing; in one scene, after not eating enough, the panels’ contents become shaky and vertiginous before going black, [End Page 299] mimicking her loss of consciousness (pp. 140–146). In another nightmare-like sequence, Katie’s limp body lies naked and stark against a background comprised of dark scratchy lines. As her body slowly inflates and becomes bloated, she marks off dashed lines on her stomach and buttocks, readying herself for surgery—or for butchering, as it turns out: in the concluding panel, she grips a meat cleaver and slices into herself, leaving a flap of exposed flesh hanging open (pp. 100–101). Even after the phantasm dissipates and Katie’s body shrinks back down, we see the image’s menacing aftershock still hovering over her head as a sinister cloud of the black scratches. These dark abrasions, representing an excess of shame and bad affect, materially mark the pervasive influence of anorexia in her life.

Although Lighter Than My Shadow’s central focus is on the psychic and physical costs of anorexia, the text is more than a simple case study. Green traces the etiology of her disordered eating through its deep-seated roots—many of which relate to the contradictions of gender. Thinness is ideal not only because it is viewed as aesthetically pleasing, but more significantly because it signifies transcendence of the undesirable female body and its historical associations with uncleanliness...