Yesterday’s Ypulse post, The Advantage to Penguin’s ‘Point of View’, (which is really excellent!) reminded me that I’ve yet to post the review that I wrote for them defending Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls ages ago on here.
(Ypulse is a fantastic blog geared towards marketing to today’s teens, tweens and Gen Y)
“The tagline had me incredibly worried: “I swear to be the skinniest girl in school. Skinnier than you.” While I don’t profess to be an expert on eating disorders, I was an active member of the Eating Disorder Awareness Committee in college and held more than my share of “Ana” and “Mia” hands, both male and female. Anorexia and bulimia are not trivial disorders and should never be characterized by any trivial symptoms – such as the desire to be pretty or to be the skinniest girl in school. These disorders are larger than that. They go deeper than that. And so when I saw this tagline, my immediate response was, “Oh… no…” (No, no, no, no, no!)
For me, the premise of the book raised two major concerns. Was Wintergirls, in misunderstanding what these diseases are to those who experience them, going to offend a large community of people? And, more importantly, if it was a complete misrepresentation of eating disorders, did it run the very high risk of being a novel packed with triggers? Too often, as a recent New York Times article (reg. required) points out, in their attempt to be as realistic as possible, books about eating disorders become how-to manuals.
Fortunately, Laurie Halse Anderson does not offend and does not misrepresent. Wintergirls is a very raw and real representation of what it is to battle an eating disorder without drawing the reader too close to what the main character, Lia, refers to as “dangerland.”
The story centers on Lia as she deals with her best friend Cassie’s ED-related death by using her own eating disorder as a crutch. As is the case with many, the disorder can often become the one constant – something that is always there. The reader experiences everything that Lia experiences. We feel her need for control, her need to hide, her need to remain anorexic. But we also feel her world slipping away from her. We simultaneously feel her fear. And, most importantly – we understand the consequences of Lia’s decisions.
But it’s Emma, Lia’s innocent and doting younger sister, who really opens our eyes to the horrors of eating disorders. With a best friend dead and parents who can’t seem to truly understand her pain – Emma is the only character whose love means as much to Lia as the disorder itself. This parallel is frightening, strange, and extremely important when it comes to understanding anorexia and bulimia.
The tagline I mentioned earlier does have a special place in the book. Lia has already witnessed Cassie’s bulimic habits. But, it’s one New Year’s Eve that the girls decide to support each other. Cassie as a bulimic and Lia as an anorexic. Once read in context, it’s actual a very real and typical occurrence, for teens with eating disorders to find a friend to inspire and help them through the struggle of denying oneself nourishment. After Cassie’s death, Lia finds encouragement through online Ana and Mia chat groups and blogs. Ana is the name these groups give to anorexics, Mia to bulimics. These groups are only too real and very protective of their members – other wintergirls.
In the end, Lia gets the help that she needs. She’s able to recover. But for all recovering anorexics and bulimics, life without an eating disorder is an ongoing battle that must be fought every day. Lia says, “There is no magic cure, no making it all go away forever. There are only small steps upward.” For many of the people I have known, this means making a choice every day to live healthfully and raise eating disorder awareness.
In my opinion, Wintergirls is this small step upward. Teens today are flooded with images that promote a negative body image. This is often linked with a message of success, beauty. control. Anorexia and bulimia are diseases that are all too prevalent in our society, and which, too often, are misunderstood. Laurie Halse Anderson’s exquisite novel provides a better understanding of the disease and is sure to spark further, much needed discussions the true causes, societal pressures, consequences, and ways to help and prevent.”