My most popular book is Hollow Beauty, a YA novel about a girl who decides to go on a drastic diet after a popular boy asks her to go to the prom. The fact that this book is my “bestseller” makes me feel sad because I still think about the death of Karen Carpenter on February 4, 1983 from anorexia nervosa when I was a young girl, and today, millions of people continue to struggle with eating disorders.
Reading stories of others and knowing that you—or someone you love—is not alone can be a powerful way to cope. There is magic in sharing our stories. Ask members at a Weight Watcher’s meeting. Ask anyone who has leaned on a community to heal from some type of hurt.
Reading books about eating disorders even can help save lives by showing what the symptoms and behaviors look like. Through the power of story, someone may recognize that something is wrong in their own life or in the lives of one of their friends, and this can lead someone to seek help.
So which YA books about eating disorders should you read? (And in case you think YA is only for teens, check out my post on 13 Reasons Why Adults Love Reading YA.)
For starters, you will find plenty of offerings in the genre. Goodreads offers two great book lists: (links) YA Eating Disorder Fiction and Best Books about Eating Disorders. My personal recommendations are as follows:
This wisp of a book is a quick read, and its petite size seems to reflect the super-skinny shape of the heroine, Sethie Weiss. She’s such a disconnected character she’s almost hard to like. She’s so cold, made of granite, and not in touch with herself in any way. She makes bad choices. It takes awhile to realize that Sethie’s pain is part of this perfectionist state she’s iced herself into, and the things she does and says are linked to her illness.
In the end I rooted for her. I wanted her to become a real girl again.
Many people point to Wintergirls as the touchstone book for eating disorders, and the reason is simple. This book is stark, beautiful, and also painful. Laurie Halse Anderson writes about many different tough topics, and Wintergirls addresses eating disorders, friendship, grief, loss, and recovery. One girl is dead. The other one suffers from guilt and anorexia.
At times the book is disorienting and confusing, but this seemed to align with Lia’s state of mind. I was often uncomfortable while reading this book—which was the point, I think.
This one is a romantic love triangle that explores insecurity and the power of words to hurt and to heal. When tall, gorgeous Brody asks Olivia to the prom, she’s ecstatic—until he suggests that she use the two months before the dance to lose some weight. His comment sends her on a spiral of dangerously rapid weight loss, but as her pounds vanish, her friendship deepens with Ross, the new prep cook at the diner where she works.
My first diet started in middle school around the time puberty hit. I remember having "head rushes" where everything went black because my blood sugar dropped so low from not eating all day and training for 10K races. At college with an all-you-can-eat meal plan, I gained the Freshman Fifteen; my body went into rebellion after years of caloric restriction. I've struggled with dieting much of my life. In my thirties, I lost 60 pounds on Weight Watchers and now remain relatively stable at a healthy weight now—give or take a few pounds in any given season.
Was I anorexic? I wanted to be. I starved for a few days at a time but felt I lacked the discipline to stick with it. Certainly my relationship with food and body image was disordered. I suffered from low self-esteem, low self-respect, and a desire to please other people, often at cost to myself. As a teen and young adult, I spent a lot of time and energy not knowing who I was or what I wanted, except to be smaller. Much, much smaller.
When writing Hollow Beauty, I drew on all those old feelings—and they were still easy to find.
In addition to these 3 YA books about eating disorders you should read, I have a couple of memoir recommendations. One person in particular stands above all others: Caroline Knapp. Her struggles with anorexia are detailed in The Merry Recluse, Appetites: Why Women Want, and even to some extent in Drinking: A Love Story. Her work is funny, honest, challenging, and all-around amazing. My copies of her book are stained with highlighter marks. I give her 5 stars all around.
The cutter cuts to make the pain at her center visible. The anorexic starves to make manifest her hunger and vulnerability. The extremes announce, This is who I am, this is what I feel, this is what happens when I don’t get what I need. In quadraphonic sound, they give voice to that most central hunger, which is the desire to be recognized, to be known and loved because of, and in spite of, who you are; they give voice to the sorrow that takes root when that hunger is unsatisfied. – Caroline Knapp, Appetites: Why Women Want
Another great memoir about eating disorders is Wasted by Mayra Hornbacher. It is a powerful memoir about eating disorders.
Above all, if you are someone who struggles with food, do not take four decades to learn the lesson that I have learned: you are enough. You are small enough, good enough, smart enough. The number on the scale does not define who you are or who you will become.
I’d love to hear from you. Please like or share any books and personal stories.