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A How-To Book for Teen Anorexics?

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Does the new YA novel Wintergirls TEACH girls to have anorexia?

anorexic girl lying on the bed

The NY Times posed an interesting question this week: In writing about eating disorders, are authors, unwittingly, creating an alluring guidebook to the disease?

Case in point: Wintergirls, a new YA novel by Laurie Halse Anderson. It's about a teen anorexic. Will girls who read these books use it as a primer?

Psychologist Dr. Lisa Boesky says, "It is rare for girls who are not at risk for eating disorders to read a book such as Wintergirls and suddenly develop one. However, for girls who already suffer from an eating disorder or who are on the edge of one, these types of books can trigger a variety of negative emotions and behaviors, and sometimes even provide inspiration or helpful hints toward remaining thin."

Dr. Lisa continues, "If teens are reading these types of books, their parents should be involved and there should be continual conversation about the story."

How do you know if your daughter is suffering from an eating disorder?

"Today we are seeing a really broad range of eating-disordered behavior, including extreme dieting, over-exercise, and skipping meals. While not all teens reach the point of having an anorexia or bulimia diagnosis, millions of them do fall into those gray areas," says Claire Mysko, author of Girls Inc. Presents: You're Amazing! A No-Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self. "The bottom line is that if your child's thoughts about food and weight are preventing her from feeling good about herself and enjoying her life, that is enough of a sign to seek help from a professional."

We spoke with Dr. David B. Herzog, author of Unlocking the Mysteries of Eating Disorders, momlogic friend Counseling Mom, Roseanne Tobey, L.P.C., and Claire Mysko, who is also founder of Inside Beauty, for important warning signs that parents can look for in teens who may be suffering from bulimia or anorexia.

5 Top Signs of Anorexia or Bulimia:

1. Extreme food restriction: The teen has a drastic change in her eating habits. For instance, she is only willing to accept really small portions and then pushes them around the plate instead of eating them.

2. Perceives her body or parts of her body as extremely large when that is not the case: This may result in a change in clothing style -- a daughter who has lost a lot of weight and is now wearing baggy clothing.

3. Disappearance of food from refrigerator or pantry: Bingers usually binge in secret, so keep an eye out for pantries or fridges that have been emptied of their contents, as well as large amounts of empty food wrappers, either in the garbage or stashed in some out of the way place.

4. Excessive, compulsive exercise: An obsession with exercising -- for instance, several times a day, or to the point of complete exhaustion. 

5. Extreme weight loss or marked fluctuations in weight: Dramatic weight loss can be a sign of anorexia, but it is important to remember that not all eating disorders result in weight loss. Many bulimics are normal weight and they can even be overweight. That doesn't make their eating-disordered behavior any less dangerous. Watch out for frequent trips to the bathroom after meals, and excessive exercise (specifically, increased discussion about needing to burn off calories). If you find any evidence that your child has been abusing laxatives or diet pills, confront her immediately.

The earlier a patient is diagnosed and treated with an eating disorder, the more likely it is that they will recover completely. However, according to Walden, one of the country's leading hospitals for treating eating disorders, prolonged bouts with bulimia and anorexia that go untreated can result in osteoporosis, retarded growth, kidney problems, ulcers, and heart failure, and even death.

For more information about teens and eating disorders, visit the Harris Center for Eating Disorders or Walden Behavioral Care.

Do you think YA books can encourage girls to develop anorexia?

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12 comments so far | Post a comment now
Eunice May 13, 2009, 9:29 AM

Yes, I do think for the girls or boys who are already worried about their looks or how much they weigh and already have eating disordered thoughts, although may not have been diagnosed or lost weight, the books can encourage.

For those girls or boys who already have an eating disorder, yes it can as well.

Miranda May 13, 2009, 12:03 PM

As a former sufferer from “disordered eating”, I think books/films about the subject paint eating disorders in a too-positive light. The girls are typically happy girls who spiral into an eating disorder, and then after being discovered manage to get help and gain love and acceptance from all around them and go back to living perfectly normal lives. That’s not how it works. Sometimes, the damage of eating disorders is not immediate and can only be fully understood after a problem crops up years later (such as infertility due to anovulation). Why doesn’t anyone write books about that?

Rachel May 13, 2009, 3:30 PM

Yes, I think I can see that happening. I’m a former smoker and whenever I see smoking on tv or movies I crave it. I imagine it would apply to eating disorders and like the article stated, possibly “push” some girls (or boys) over the edge and into the disease.

johnny mclovin May 13, 2009, 4:23 PM

everyone who is an anerexic is a moron looking for control so take control by eating i myself being a boy would rather have a girl 2 stone over weight than under it so plaese shut down this site or go **** yourself

Abbey May 26, 2009, 1:08 AM

I’ve suffered with eating disorders for most of my life and I have to say that reading books or watching movies with anorexia as a subject does not push most girls into anorexia. I feel like reading about anorexics brings a feeling of normalcy to girls, pushing them to feel less of an outsider and more normal, like there are other people in the world who are feeling that way. Most people, the people who have not had an ED, don’t understand what it’s like, not just the food obsession, but the mental agitations behind the food, but sometimes it’s nice not to feel so alone.

The Pro-Ana/Mia websites do much more harm than any book or movie ever could.

Tara V June 7, 2009, 2:51 AM

Will girls who read these books use it as a primer?
i read a book i think called Emily’s Secret when I was 8. Bulimia beame my happy..
Later at 14-15 Anorexia took over… There are list online of books girls read for inspiration. But at 17-19 when I was getting better, I used the same books I baught long before from hose list as inspiration NOT to let it control me. It was hard. Even during pregnany it was hard…. But reading those characters, while sometimes triggering, helped me not to go back.
……. This comment is surprisingly hard to write.
Leave it at this:
It can trigger girls to become ana, id they are already predispositioned, but it can also help treat and prevent.
I never did drugs bc of all the drug stories I read when I was younger, all the bad that happened to the charaters… same lines.

S.Murray June 7, 2009, 10:50 PM

I think the positive thing to remember about these books are that if it’s showing tips and tricks to girls at risk, it’s showing those tips and tricks to the people who love and watch them. That is to say - that concerned parents/guardians should also read these books so they know and can recognize the behavior. It makes those anorexic or bulimics tricks totally transparent.

sick August 26, 2009, 6:26 PM

hi im 14 and i had Bulimia for a period of time and even though i had talked to my mum about Bulimia with other people i felt sorry for people in that situation and i knew the consequences i felt that what i had was different to other people and i could convince myself that what i was doing was ok and right and i was only doing it for now and could stop when ever i wanted that wasnt the case after a while the food comes up itself im just happy that i have stopped while i could though my parents never found out

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Jenn March 22, 2011, 1:19 PM

Speaking as a teen anorexic in recovery, this article and what it implies irritates me greatly. One doesn’t just choose to develop an eating disorder. A great deal more goes into it. Yes, many books I have red with eating disorder themes have stuck in my mind- so have ones about suicide, but I am not suicidal. It takes far, far more than reading a book to become anorexic, and it is a long, slow process, not a sudden thing. At least these books are raising awareness about teen eating disorders, and helping to educate the general public about the problem.

Melissa May 10, 2011, 7:17 PM

I really don’t think that Wintergirls would teach people how to be an anorexic. If anything, I think it would either help others (friends and family members) see signs of anorexia and bulimia and would help teens see the negative effects of the cycle of anorexic behaviors.

I wonder if the author of this post or that of the NY Times even read Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel before they wrote their commentaries.

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