Ask “Why not?”
― Laurie Halse Anderson,
Eating disorders are a very delicate topic. Anyone who has been afflicted with one will probably share their story if asked, but generally is not eager to talk about it. The nature of eating disorders is that they take over a person’s life when the actions are done behind closed doors and therefore can be more difficult to detect than other illnesses.
Because of this eating disorders take more lives than any other psychiatric illness, directly and indirectly, due to the damage inflicted on the body and on the psyche.
In addition to this, many misconceptions surround them, such as a person must be thin to have an eating disorder, or that everyone has anorexia nervosa, as opposed to binge eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, or OSFED (Otherwise Specified Feeding Or Eating Disorder, formerly known as EDNOS).
In a culture that prizes thinness some eating disorder behaviors may be seen as attempts at a healthy lifestyle, or simply attempts at losing weight. There are misconceptions, but then there are depictions of what the madness behind and eating disorder entails that are so accurate a person reading it may begin to feel some dark cravings themselves.
When I first read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, I had no idea what “wannarexia” was. I had never heard the slang term. There is something about our culture which prizes being thin that makes other eating disorders besides anorexia, such as bulimia, OSFED, or binge eating disorder, seem less glamorous, or even less serious.
Wannarexia is, in layman’s terms, the want to have anorexia nervosa, or the desire to have an eating disorder at all. The drama that comes along with having an eating disorder is something that some people find fascinating, and which others can take too far.
I will begin therefore with the “Why Not” of why someone should read Anderson’s Wintergirls. This may be an unusual way to review something but I feel that, given the subject matter, it is extremely important.
Wintergirls focuses on a young girl named Lia who is afflicted with anorexia nervosa. In the beginning of the book, it is something that everyone around her hesitates to talk about, but by the middle of it she is once again drowning in the treacherous disease.
It describes the disorder in a way that almost seems poetic, almost appealing. It makes the idea of hunger seem like just another way to solve life’s problems while simultaneously showing the symptoms and heartache that it brings. For a person who has never had the hell of an eating disorder, and is wired in just the right way, Wintergirls could be a tool of wannarexia; a gateway, if you will.
In the beginning of the development of an eating disorder some persons may choose to motivate themselves with “thinspiration” (photos of extremely thin people, usually women) and other tools, and for many people, Wintergirls has proven to be a tool for those who are trying to coax out an eating disorder out into the open of their lives.
At first, eating disorders seem like a tool for coping. It is only when a person is too far gone that they begin to realize that they have to find a way to cope with the hell of the eating disorder. Wannarexia, which is exhibited by persons either attempting to develop eating disorders or in love with the idea of them, is a very dangerous idea because for some people that is what it begins with, but then ends in a hospital bed, or worse. A morgue.
Anorexia is a very serious thing, and in the case of Anderson’s novel, it can seem less serious, more trendy, more poetic, more tragically beautiful. The issue with this should be obvious: nothing should make a life threatening disease sound remotely appealing, and in the case of Anderson’s Wintergirls, it could be argued that the author is doing just that. If you have ever had an eating disorder and have struggled with relapse, this book is not for you.
The why a person should not read this seems definitely quite strong, but there are reasons why you should read it, too.
While it is true that Anderson’s writing can be quite beautiful, it is also clear that Anderson knows she is not writing about a beautiful thing. The character she has created does have depth and does sink into the depths of her eating disorder, but all the while we the audience also see the devastating effect it has on her life. Anderson’s character Lia, who narrates from the first person, talks constantly about headaches, exhaustion, and the never ending cold.
She discusses how her body is not meant to do what it is doing, even describes the shame she feels for looking up websites that aid people with worsening their eating disorders. She accurately describes the hell that she goes through in battling a disease that takes over a person’s every thought, every second consumed with the thought of food, every moment sinking further and further into depression. We see a body that most women would and have killed themselves for, but we also see the price that Lia has to pay: her life.
The reason why you should read this is simple if you have never had an eating disorder; you should read it because there are few other ways that accurately depict what having one is like. It is a work of fiction that does clearly understand the cost of the damage inflicted by an eating disorder on one’s body, mind, and social life.
We see Lia encompassed fully by her illness but we also see her struggle to maintain friends, family, even simple tasks such as getting up from her desk at school. Eating disorders are all encompassing, obsessive illnesses that take over people’s lives, and sometimes take their lives in the process.
The reader is watching Lia’s life fade away from her and also seeing her illness cause her to accelerate the process. If you have never had an eating disorder, but have wondered what might go on inside the mind of an anorexic person, this is a book for you.
And what if you have had an eating disorder but still do not understand it? What if you are recovered but have no wish to go back? Should you take a gander and sit down with this book, tea in one hand, curled up in your favorite chair, reading about Lia’s struggles? That I am not sure of.
For people who have suffered from any eating disorder, or been tempted by one, I would say that reader discretion should be advised. While it is true that the book is juvenile fiction, it is also true that it paints a seemingly beautiful, terribly distressing picture of a life threatening illness. The writing is quite lovely, but therein lies the problem, too; it can make the eating disorder seem lovely also.
I would give this book four out of five stars. It does do a fantastic job of describing the hell that is an eating disorder, something many writers have attempted to do and failed. However, to some people this book could be considered harmful, almost like a gateway drug to something worse, something more sinister. It is an enjoyable read, but it is also a terribly depressing story. I am not exaggerating when I say if you read it, know that you are doing so at your own risk.