Teens & the Troubling Allure of Eating Disorder Books

wintergirlsThere’s a new fiction book out about a teenage girl’s descent into anorexia called Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Apparently it’s causing quite the stir, even though it hasn’t become as popular as other “thinspiration” or “pro-ana” books might be; perhaps it’s too new?

All the same, the general concern in the eating disorder recovery field is that books like these could encourage certain teens to engage in disordered eating behavior, particularly those already predispositioned for perfectionist tendencies.

Some feel books like this — though raw and brutal and unpleasant — end up glorifying EDs for some teens, plunging them headfirst into a world of disordered eating to lose weight, or look better, etc.

Cathy pointed out a recent blog post in the New York Times about the book called “The Troubling Allure of Eating Disorder Books”.

Since it was really on-message for my blog, I thought I’d share the link with you today to get your feedback. Take a peek and let me know what you think.

I haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t really say much about it, but from what I’ve read, I can definitely see why a book like this could encourage some susceptible teens to engage in self-destructive behavior … and it also is another reminder of why parental involvement is so very critical for teens.

(On the flipside, I’d imagine most parents would be in the dark about what their teens are reading nowadays … but perhaps they should know).

The thing is, while eating disorders are often blamed on societal pressures and the media, it’s not the case for everyone; parents can help as best they can, but it’s a psychological illness for many, and one that shouldn’t be treated lightly (neither should bulimia, or binge eating disorder).

A Band-Aid doesn’t cure an eating disorder, especially when there is an underyling problem behind the illness. This is why in-patient treatment is often the final straw; removing the person from all of life’s comforts/discomforts (depending on your frame of mind) in an oftentimes multi-phased effort to recover.

This works for some, but not everyone, as we saw in the HBO documentary, THIN, which I blogged about last fall (including a disclaimer note that the film might be triggering for some.

And while for many it’s a real psychological illness, there are also tons of people who suffer from eating disorders to fit in, to be thin; for vanity purposes.

And it’s for those people that I could see how a book like Wintergirls or a blog entry like mine about THIN could be considered “triggering.”

But really, isn’t everything in life potentially “triggering”?

Holidays and vacations centered around gluttony and over-eating; going to the gym where you see eviable bodies; supermarket or drugstore displays with weight loss supplements and pills; magazines, movies and Web sites that glorify thinness and skin-and-bones … it’s everywhere.

MamaV brought up a good point on her blog recently, when she was accused of showing too many “triggering” images. And I supported her 100 percent. This is the real world. Sheltering our teens or children from images that could trigger them is just unrealistic.

What ever happened to personal responsibility? When is the media not to blame, and when does personal responsibility take over? No one can live in a bubble forever … images and words are everywhere we look today.

So since triggers exist everywhere, does this mean a book like Wintergirls or a film like THIN should be singled out because it could be triggering some young women?

Or is there a bigger picture worth seeing: that these books and films can be used to teach, to educate our teens?

I don’t envy the moms and dads of teens today; teens today are up against way more pressures than they ought to be, and oftentimes the stress and anxiety manifests in an eating disorder.

Sometimes it’s short-lived, and for attention, but usually there’s something deeper at the heart of it, and the longer the illness remains, the harder it is to recover.

Yet turning to an eating disorder as a coping mechanism doesn’t have to be the case, and I believe (to a point) parents can play a role in guiding their teens.

I think it’s important for parents to keep an open, non-judgmental mind — and an open ear — for their teens today. This way, a book like Wintergirls isn’t seen as a trigger, but rather a lesson of “what not to do, how not to live” … and perhaps it could even serve as a real discussion piece, a launching pad, for parents and teens.

(Especially before the teens go away to college and are on their own. No matter how hard you want to fight for them, or put them in a facility … if they’re 18 … they’re legally on their own, and your role as parent becomes diminished).

Call me naïve, but my parents were honest and open with my siblings and I about all the touchy subjects teens typically hate discussing with their parents. Eating disorders were not among them, but had it been an issue at the time, you can bet my parents would have opened that can of worms.

I believe those open lines of communication gave us not only a strong foundation on which to stand during tough times where we had to make decisions on the spot, but also strengthened our relationship as teens and beyond.

Triggers exist everywhere, and we can choose to ignore them … or learn from them. I am curious to read Wintergirls to form my own opinion of how I think it could impact someone else (I realize given the subject of my blog here, that I am prone to disordered eating behavior … so I feel like I’d be a good test case).

The thing is, books and movies and Web sites and magazines aren’t going away. So we need to each choose for ourselves: how can we make peace with them in our lives? Will we stray from certain media, and indulge in others?

Ultimately, like with anything else in life, how we choose to react to an outside stimuli is our own choice, our own doing.

And once we see we are in control … the notion of “trigger” seems less and less scary (at least to me).

Has anyone read Wintergirls? Do you think books like this are triggers for those susceptible to disordered eating, or do you think they can serve the educational role for which they’re intended?

18 thoughts on “Teens & the Troubling Allure of Eating Disorder Books

  1. i saw this book a while back but haven’t read it either. probably would be a trigger somehow! (joking, i think…) 😉

    seriously though you touch on a wide and good array of points surrounding the issues…personal responsibility, parental responsibility, media and public responsibility. but your last statement really says it all…personal control and responsibility! awesome.

    one thing to point out though is that sometimes, people so sick and depleted from an eating disorder are NOT in control and can’t even think straight to differentiate triggers. everything becomes a reaction in the disorders favor. it is not just a “mental” thing, but an actual physical condition caused by the lack of nutrition or nourishment that causes the brain to stop working properly, even in regards to thought process. so while there is still personal responsibility for SURE, there needs to be a little sensitivity when it comes to that point.

  2. Hmmm….this is a slippery slope. I can see books like this going either way. I can see them being informative and helpful, but I also see my teenage self who would be almost motivated by reading something like this.

    I do agree with MamaV – this stuff is EVERYwhere. Now that I’m an adult, I know what things to avoid so that they are not triggering. But for teenagers it’s much harder – they don’t think ahead like that. I would be very interested to read the book, though.

  3. Hi Clare, thanks … I do think personal responsibility is important for most people — especialy those experimenting/fliriting with EDs but not full-blown disorder, but you’re absolutely right, too, to suggest that for some people (and I haven’t experienced that point) they are physically *not* in control due to malnourishment. That is scary, and you’re right — sensitivity is warranted there.

    Holly — slippery slope is right! If I get a copy, I’ll do a review for sure!

  4. There are books about EVERYTHING out there. saying this is a trigger for EDs is like saying a book about someone committing suicide is a trigger for those considering such an act.

    There is so much to blame for EDs and their increase in society, but mainly it’s about the individual (as you pointed out above).

  5. I’m curious to hear your thoughts once you read it, Yasmin.

    Cathy, that is such a good analogy. It might give some people ideas, but I think for many, a book can serve to educate or inspire … inspire one NOT to go down that path. That said, it depends on the mental state of mind. Someone who is severely depressed and suicidal very well might view such a book as a trigger. But the reality is, triggers are omnipresent. We can’t avoid them.

  6. I’ve read this book, and although it does detail the devastating effects of eating disorders, I can see why it might trigger someone predisposed to an eating disorder. However, like you said, we cant eliminate all triggers in this world. There would be nothing left. If someone thinks a book like this might be a trigger to them then they should not read it. Plain and simple. Well, actually probably not so simple, I know. But really, I think what it really comes down to is that we can’t eliminate all triggers so it’s important to learn how to seperate ourselves from them or deal with them.

  7. I have not read the book but I have one thing to add. I think the person most vulnerable to being triggered by a book like this or any media focusing on the details of the disorder is also the very person who has little/no control over their behaviours. I think it is really easy for those of us who can still have rational thoughts about our behaviours to say, you just shouldn’t read it. But for someone that is deep in the disorder it’s not that easy. The disorder takes over your brain, your thoughts, your will, your wants. People deep in the disorder seek out this kind of information as a way to improve their ability to be sick. Unfortunately they don’t see it as an issue.

    I agree that triggers are everywhere. Sometimes I realize something is a trigger long after it has affected me. It is impossible to eliminate all triggers. Impossible.

    Open communication is certainly a key to helping children grow up with a better understanding of what is healthy and to deal with their emotions as they come up.

  8. EXACTLY!! — “I think what it really comes down to is that we can’t eliminate all triggers so it’s important to learn how to seperate ourselves from them or deal with them.”

    Hi Susie, your comment is along the lines of Clare’s, and it’s good to keep your perspective in mind too … that a rational person can choose not to engage … but someone super-sick would not have that ability. I don’t know a general poll, but most of my readers, I’d say, are not in that category .Some might have been … or might be teetering there … but I think most of the women with DE visiting my blog would categorize themselves as rational and not so sick that they couldn’t make a decision.

  9. in the public realm, triggers (to a certain extent and responsibility) shouldn’t have to be censored really. in any media there is a level of responsibility regarding who the said media is being “pushed” to. lissa, you can’t know everyone’s state of mind, and you can’t possibly cater to or for everyone all the time. you, or any responsible writer or media person shouldn’t have to censor, but the key points are “media responsible,” “media audience,” and then finally “audience responsibility.” some kind of BALANCE! sounds yoga-ish… 😉

    for ED patients who may be in the state that ive described above, hopefully they will have an outside help to censor for them or shield them from triggers that may not seem like triggers to “healthy thinkers.” especially the kids and teens that have parents around…. i just pray that i guess, because i have been there. and coming out of it, you can understand how crazy the mind becomes.

  10. When I’ve been at my most “sick,” I’ve gravitated towards the books that chronicled the lives or stories of people I might be able to relate to… whether fictional or non-fictional. It wasn’t intentional and yet I found myself reading books about girls who were depressed and/or self-injured. I’d find that characters in my book either had eating disorders or disordered eating patterns.

    It was actually a trip to the bookstore that clued one of my closest friends in that something “wasn’t quite right.”

    I found that the books did not increase said behaviors or feelings or quell them in me. In many ways, I found myself saying, “See? If I had a problem, I’d be like this person.” Healthy reaction? Probably not. But at the same time… at least it didn’t make things worse? They did provide a strange sort of comfort that made me feel less alone though.

    As for this book, I haven’t read it, so I can’t make any specific remarks there.

  11. anon, your comment of “See? If I had a problem, I’d be like this person.” resonates STRONGLY, because ED is so big into comparisons. “If I was sick I’d be more like so and so…”

    that is why triggers for an ED sufferer can often be just simple stories of other’s recoveries or struggles!

    again, stories that probably shouldn’t be censored. just understanding your thought process anon.

  12. Thanks for commenting back lissa. I think this is a great discussion. I would argue though that there are many lurkers who’s state of mind we wouldn’t know. Since this is not a pro-ana blog, I would bet they wouldn’t feel comfortable actually commenting on many posts as it is not the norm on here to have that mindset.

    Your posts are very interesting and I always enjoy reading them.

    In the past, I have definitely read books that are journals of disordered eaters and compared myself to them thinking I’m not that bad. Or taking small details and using it to help me “lose a little weight”. I found comfort knowing I wasn’t like “them”. But in reality, it is your thoughts that are the deciding factor as to whether you are disordered or not. Just because I never had treatment does not mean I don’t have a disorder but reading things like that can certainly give you “proof” otherwise.

  13. Thanks, Clare … I am glad to hear that 🙂 I do try to keep in mind that some might come to my site looking for something other than what they find … so I do try to be mindful, but I know sometimes I’m a little judgmental … hard not to be!

    Thanks for sharing, Anonymous – it sounds like your friend might have helped you realize something very big.

    Thanks Susie, I like to get a dialogue going. I’m at an all-day photo shoot for work the rest of today so I won’t be online but wanted to write back before I go.

    True, this is NOT a pro-ana blog at all … so I hope if they ARE reading, they’re inspired by our collective journeys– not triggered.

  14. Clare- I’ve definitely seen how much ED likes to compare… and far too often! The journey to realizing I *had* a problem has been just has hard, and in some ways harder, than the problem itself. As for what you said about triggers, I also agree there. It’s so hard to pinpoint what may or may not be a trigger for anyone, especially when I sometimes don’t even know what will trigger me. In that respect though, I think the argument could be made that having those uncensored stories available is a good thing… in my own journey it’s been enlightening to learn what my triggers are so that I can prepare myself, ya know?

    Melissa- You’re welcome. I’m a regular reader, but I’m still not ready to “publicly” discuss this struggle. And yes, that friend, actually a number of friends have definitely been instrumental in my path toward recovery. From the constant reminder that (as Susie noted) the thoughts count to holding my hand when I was scared to staying with me on the phone as I drove to my first therapy appointment… I’m grateful and often somewhat speechless at all they’ve done for me.

  15. Hi Anonymous; no worries — there’s no pressure at all to come out on who you are or more about your struggles, past and/or present; I’m just glad you’re here. Sounds like you have some amazing friends. I wish others had too.

  16. I am not going to pretend that I have even the slightest clue what may trigger those who struggle with EDs, but I think this particular novel deals more deeply and honestly with the topic than many out there. The character’s struggle seems to come from more emotional and psychological sources than the media. If you feel brave enough to delve into such a dark, emotional read, it’s worth it.

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