Book and Issue Review: Wintergirls

TW: Eating Disorders

When I read Speak in high school, I was blown away by how well Laurie Halse Anderson dealt with the issues surrounding her protagonist’s sexual assault and subsequent depression.  It was her debut novel, and it was touching, well-written, and ultimately a huge source of support for many readers who came to connect with Anderson’s characters.  I had re-read Speak since then, but until this week, I had not read any of her other works.

But I am so glad I did.

Wintergirls was everything I hoped it would be: solidly-written, well-researched, and compelling, the novel tells the story of Lia, a high school senior who has struggled with an eating disorder for years.  After her best friend dies suddenly, Lia begins to slowly deteriorate.  Written in response to fans who wrote in expressing to Anderson that this was something they struggled with, and in consultation with pediatricians and psychiatrists who helped to ensure the accuracy of Anderson’s portrayal of Lia’s experience, the book is both touching and at times uncomfortable.  And in case it was not clear, I fully recommend it (and Speak, if you missed it).

I’ll talk about the book a little more, but let me say a bit about eating disorders.

In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from or have suffered from an eating disorder at some point in their life.  Eating disorders include not only anorexia and bulemia, which are the most commonly discussed, but also binge eating disorder and eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS).  The statistics on impact and treatment are concerning: statistics show that only about 33% of individuals suffering from anorexia and 6% of those suffering from bulemia receive treatment for their condition; just under half of those suffering from binge eating disorder obtain treatment as well, a statistic we can only hope will improve in light of recent updates made to give binge eating disorder its own diagnostic criteria.  These disorders often start out with what would be considered normal dieting behavior, something so common that some studies indicate roughly 90% of college women engage in it; unfortunately, about 35% of dieters progress to pathological dieting, and about 25% of those individuals go on to develop an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are very real mental illnesses, with very real mental and physical consequences.  They frequently co-occur with depression and/or anxiety, and can also be accompanied by the following:

  • extremely low body weight
  • thinning of the bones
  • anemia
  • muscle weakness
  • growth of very fine hair all over the body (for warmth)
  • electrolyte imbalance and dehydration
  • low blood pressure
  • acid reflux disorder (more common with bulemia)

In extreme cases, eating disorders can lead to brain damage, multi-organ failure, and infertility, and in some cases, eventually death.

Eating disorders are scary, but they also largely impact a portion of the population that often isn’t taken seriously: teenage girls.  86% of those who report having an eating disorder also report its onset occurring by age 20, and eating disorders can begin as early as late elementary school.  While it is indicated in Wintergirls that Lia’s family may not have initially noticed her fixation with being thin and the excessive nature of her dieting, throughout the book they are monitoring her food intake and looking for signs that she is relapsing since her last attempt at recovery.  This website includes a list of warning signs that families and friends of individuals who may struggle with body image or who fixate on dieting may exhibit, which may indicate an eating disorder, and Anderson includes a number of these behaviors in her portrayal of Lia’s experience with her eating disorder.

One of the issues that the book makes clear is that eating disorders are fueled by disordered thinking; the problem is psychological, and it can be difficult to confront.  As readers watch Lia count calories, exercise excessively, worry about how her lack of food is impacting her, and struggle with depression, they also get to see her thought process as she articulates a distorted self image, a fixation on her weight, and a sense of isolation from her family and former friends.  Through flashbacks, Anderson reveals how Lia rejected attempts to help her recover in the past, a pattern which can be common among individuals struggling with eating disorders.

Anderson’s books are a reminder that even if you are struggling with some incredibly difficult and isolating things, you are not alone.  Though I would warn readers to prepare themselves if content related to eating disorders or self-harm is triggering to them, , I would also fully encourage people to read Anderson’s books.  They are a message worth receiving.

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~ by Randi Saunders on February 16, 2015.

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