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YA Novels & Anorexia: Unexpected Consequences

By Jackie Burrell
Tuesday, May 12th, 2009 at 10:16 am in Health & Safety.

Anorexic self-image (Photo by Emily Harris/Miami Herald/KRT) Just read a really interesting, really troubling story in the New York Times on young adult novels and eating disorders. Laurie Halse Anderson‘s new book “Wintergirls,” about a teen’s horrifying struggle with anorexia, is garnering considerable buzz. The book is racing up critics’ Best of 2008-09 lists, and a number of mother-daughter reading groups are immersed in it, say staffers at Lafayette’s Storyteller book store.

But NY Times book reviewer Barbara Feinberg worries that books about eating disorders can actually trigger anorexia or encourage it. Sounds bizarre, but apparently, the phenomenon is well known to anorexia and bulimia researchers. “Can a novel convey, however inadvertently, an allure to anorexic behavior?” she says in her review of the book. “While to my mind there is nothing in ‘Wintergirls’ that glamorizes the illness, for some, the mere mention of symptoms is problematic. ‘It’s about competition,’ an anorexia sufferer once explained to me. ‘Sometimes all it takes to get triggered is to read about someone who weighs less than you do.’”

The Times piece goes on to talk about the trigger impact of “pro-ana” web sites – yes, web sites that actually encourage and provide tips for anorexic girls – as well as Linday Lohan, the Olsen twins and YA novels. Amazon’s reader-submitted lists of favorite books, for example, include one by “Embracing Disorder ‘Danielle,”’ who lists a slew of novels that gave her “tips, motivation … and role models.”

Is it just me, or did it suddenly get really cold in here?

“Wintergirls” has not shown up on any such list, but Halse Anderson said that the trigger effect was one of her biggest concerns. “We have a culture that glamorizes this,” she said in a podcast. “The docs say, Yes, the book is going to trigger people. Turning on the television triggers people — looking at billboards, going to the computer, walking past a magazine rack. But the challenge in the book they felt I had met was to show the entire story. There is nothing glamorous or lovely about an eating disorder. It’s horror.”

Bottom line from the medical community: books on topics like this can have an enormous impact on teens and preteens, but parents need to be aware of what’s being read. Bottom line from the Storyteller’s Nancy Bausom? The parents in her mother-daughter book clubs are looking for good reads, of course, but also for books that forge mother-daughter bonds, that introduce difficult teen issues, and open the way for parents and kids to discuss important topics. “Wintergirls,” she says, is a haunting, compelling read that will do all those things. Don’t just hand it to your kid. Read it. Discuss it. (Bausom said Halse Anderson’s first novel, “Speak,” which is about teen parties and assault, is another excellent candidate for mothers and daughters to read together.)

Your thoughts? Have you used books as a way to broach difficult subjects with your child? Or did your parents ever do that with you? And what do you think of the notion that eating disorders can be triggered even by novels that present anorexia as a terrible problem?

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2 Responses to “YA Novels & Anorexia: Unexpected Consequences”

  1. C Says:

    I think saying that anorexia is triggered by novels is like using the old myth that talking to someone who is suicidal about committing suicide will encourage them to off themselves.

  2. D Says:

    Yes, for those girls or boys who have the tendency to have the eating disordered thoughts and obsessions, these books can be used as a resource.

    The kids with these thoughts and obsessions will not think about the horror or the death that eating disorders can bring.

    I know, because I have a daughter who is recovering from one. Many of these kids do not admit or will not accept the fact they do have a problem as their brain is not working properly and so, they don’t think about the dangers of the disorder when they are either about to go into it or when they are in it, before intervention takes place.

    It’s good for us parents to know what are kids are reading.

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