Wintergirls; eating disorders and my fascination in reading about them.

I have been meaning to do a book review on this YA novel by Laurie Halse Anderson for quite some time. It follows the story of two girls suffering from eating disorders; two matchstick girls frozen in winter time. Lia, the main character and her best friend Cassie are both the thinnest girls in their class. Lia has anorexia while Cassie struggles with bulimia. After a stunt in recovery/rehab, Lia and Cassie become estranged. The story opens when Cassie is found dead in a motel room because her esophagus has ruptured, as a result of her near-constant vomiting.

Lia is forced to deal with her estranged friend’s death through the final, frantic phone calls that Cassie has left on her phone. She is haunted by Cassie’s ghost, which pushes her farther than ever in her weight loss goals. There are entire sections of the novel in which she describes all the various practices she uses to lose weight; such as her meal plans (16 raisins, five almonds, and a pear is dinner), sewing quarters into the lining of her bathrobe so that when her step-mother weighed it her on the bathroom scale, she came in at a “healthy” weight. At one point in the novel, her weight is a scant 92 pounds.

“[The doctors] are morons. This body has a different metabolism. This body hates dragging around the chains they wrapped around it. Proof? At 099.00 I think clearer, look better, feel stronger. When I reach the next goal, it will be all that, and more.

Goal number two is 095.00, the perfect point of balance. At 095.00, I will be pure. Light enough to walk with my head up, meaty enough to fool everyone. And 095.00, I will have the strength to stay in control.

At 090.00, I will soar. That’s Goal Number Three.”

Finally, after nearly ending up dying herself, Lia confronts Cassie’s ghost, which we can interpret to be the embodiment of her own disorder and inability to admit/cope with it, and in the climax, after nearly dying she is able to call her mother for help and begins rehabilitation again. This time around however, she goes in not with the intent of trying to deceive the doctors or her family, but to truly heal and escape from her monsters.

Now, in writing this novel Laurie H Anderson consulted countless doctors and therapists specializing in eating disorders, that she would write truthfully about them. Thus, in reading this book I had to do a bit of research on my own to discover more about eating disorders. It was interesting to know that the editors and Anderson herself were worried about whether or not the book would be a “trigger” for girls who are struggling with an eating disorder. I definitely remember when I was in high school at age 15 I was counting calories and running over 30 miles a week. I was extremely conscious of my weight and figure, and it didn’t help that my family teased me about food; to the point at which I would eat in my room. I picked up a book called Life in the Fat Lane, by Cherie Bennett and rather than seeing the negative effects of eating disorders, I was actually jealous that the main character could go a whole day without eating, whereas I couldn’t. And while I never got to the point of being addicted to being thin (I’ve let myself go a TINY bit in the past couple of years), I can see how easily it would be to treat this book as an instruction manual rather than a warning.

“Dead girl walking,” the boys say in the halls.

“Tell us your secrets,” the girls whisper, one toilet to another.

I am that girl.

I am the space between my thighs, daylight shining through.

I am the bones they want, wired on a porcelain frame.”

In fact, while I never reached a dangerously low weight, I would “comfort” myself with thin pictures of girls and reading books like this. It was an addiction in itself, to read about how “other girls were able to do it” and how I secretly wished I could be like that. In itself, it was a dangerous addiction to reading about disorders and reviling in their “wrongness”, while at the same time secretly envying the main characters. It is definitely alarming how big of a genre fictional books about eating disorders are; because they are sensationalizing something that has already been overblown by the media for decades, which is why you should always read books dealing with tough subjects with a grain of salt.

For this reason especially,  my favorite part of the novel was how Lia’s family were portrayed. From her step-mother/sister to her real parents, they all have different roles in her life and at first, their blase attitude makes us want to believe that they are the reason why she has an eating disorder, but throughout the novel the lines of blame become tangled because you must realize; this is not a lifestyle choice or punishment, this is a serious mental disorder. At the end when her family comes together to support and help her, you see what many families and friends see when dealing with loved ones who are suffering from eating disorders: the surprise, shock, denial, guilt, and eventually, the overwhelming love and desire to help. It is this family/friend love for Lia and Cassie that I hope people will take away from the book, rather than focusing on the dark inner-thoughts of a girl suffering with severe anorexia.

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About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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