'I can’t read because I’m anorexic'

Jenny Tan (pictured) with a personal perspective on young adult fiction.

When I was 15-years-old, I tried to starve myself to death. I tried really hard. I dedicated two and a half years of my life to this mission.

I’m not completely mad. This suicidal act of insanity didn’t pop into my head one morning with a flashing lightbulb and a sign reading, ‘Good idea!’. Suicidal acts of insanity like that are very good at disguising themselves – hiding behind supposedly ‘sane’ thoughts and feelings so you don’t notice them until it’s too late. 

My mission began in May 2018. It wasn’t until March 2020 that I received my diagnosis of anorexia nervosa. I hid the truth, because I thought it was normal. I thought I was doing the right thing. I wanted to be like the female heroines I’d read about in books: cool, confident, effortlessly beautiful. Twig-thin and utterly unrealistic. In young adult novels, starvation is everywhere. 

Stereotypes

I was introduced to the young adult genre when I started secondary school, but books have always been a big part of my life. They’ve often been my escape from reality – so it was a crushing blow to realise that I was escaping into a world even more damaging than the one I was trying to leave behind.  These books are not the entire cause of my illness, but the continual references to size and starvation have undoubtedly affected how I see myself. In fact, they are still major triggers for me, even though I have been in recovery for over a year. They put me back in the mind and body of my 15-year-old self, and that terrifies me.

Of course, I can’t claim that books are solely responsible for the current rise in eating disorders, body image issues and low self-esteem. And not all young adult books contain these triggering references; the theme of starvation in particular is most common in science-fiction and fantasy novels, whilst the repetitive mentions of size and the idea that main characters must be thin can be seen across all genres, even the most famous children’s books – for example, the continual references to Harry Potter’s ‘skinniness’ at the beginning of every book. But in my experience, books written for teenagers and young adults like me often parade some of the most insensitive content, so I believe that raising awareness of the destructive stereotypes in young adult fiction is an overdue necessity. This is a crucial starting point in the fight to make all books, and all forms of media, more sensitive to mental health and its effects.

The first major stereotype that leaps out at me is the Skinny Stereotype. Every protagonist seems to be thin, whether they are tall or short, male or female. ‘Thin’ becomes the norm, the average body type – and, once again, this is utterly unrealistic. The Skinny Stereotype appears to be incredibly important in this genre, because there are often countless, needless references to the protagonist’s size and shape. In my experience, however, the Skinny Stereotype is as destructive, deceptive and unhelpful as the evil villains in these books. By writing protagonists that are always thin, you set up the implication that thin people are the only people worth talking about. This in turn creates a pressure to be thin, or become thin, if you want good things to happen to you. If you want to bag the hot love interest, if you want to have amazing adventures, if you want to beat the bad guy. If you want to have a future.

And if, by some miracle, a protagonist is not described as thin at the beginning of the book, the Starvation Stereotype jumps in to save them before the grand finale. This stereotype can be broken down into two main parts: Oversimplification and Glorification. Oversimplification occurs when the act of starvation is presented as an easy, accessible hobby like reading or stamp collecting. It can be carried out on a day-to-day basis with very little effort involved, and those who are ‘starving’ often refuse to eat even though they have not consumed food for days, in favour of pursuing their next adventure. This is wrong. A person who is truly starving would be unable to think about anything except their next meal. I was, ironically, consumed with thoughts of food all the time; I wrote lists and lists of meals and snacks, because it tricked my body into thinking I was feeding it. When you are starving, nothing becomes more important to you than food. Vanquishing evil will never take precedence over filling your empty stomach and nourishing your body. Without food, you can’t pursue adventures or vanquish evil villains. Without food, you can’t do anything.

Glorification is even worse. Too many times, I have come across books where starving characters are overtly and shamelessly praised for their looks. They are strong because they can fight monsters with no energy; they are beautiful because they’re so skinny they should be dead. By glorifying starvation, it becomes a desirable and admirable activity with no connection to pain or illness or coffins in the ground. In Scarlet, the final book in the ‘Lunar Chronicles’ by Marissa Meyer, a girl was described as being ‘half-starved and beautiful’ while surrounded by a circle of enemies she was dispatching singlehandedly. The idea that someone suffering from severe malnutrition could be seen as ‘beautiful’ both disgusts and bewilders me. Furthermore, in The Fall of Five in Pittacus Lore’s ‘Lorien Legacies’, a boy claimed to have a ‘starving man’s six pack’ after being starved in prison for several weeks. Unfortunately, I know from experience that this miraculous phenomenon does not exist; when your body is drained of all nutrients, your muscles waste away almost immediately as your body does everything it can to keep you alive. Your stomach will become weak and concave, and it may even bloat with gases if you go without food for long enough. But you will not get a six pack. Sorry to burst your bubble.

Plot holes

In both cases of Oversimplification and Glorification, painful reality is kicked to the kerb. A person who is starving will feel cold and tired all the time; they will experience constant shivering, dizziness and obsessive thoughts, leaving them quick-tempered, irritable and antisocial. There is nothing ‘beautiful’ about the body of a starving person – and when you look like a walking skeleton, you’re not much fun to hug, either. When I received my diagnosis, I was put on immediate bed rest until they knew I could stand up without dropping dead. Strenuous physical activity such as running and fighting is out of the question, because your heart is so weak it could stop at any moment – that’s likely to ruin the entire plot of the book, especially if the victim is your main character. Another plot-ruiner is the apathy you develop as you lose touch with the world around you. You can’t focus on anything except your own hunger, and as a result, your friendships and relationships crumble to dust. So starting a relationship with a complex and unpredictable love interest would definitely be a no-go zone.

Losing weight through starvation, as presented in these novels, seems to be an obstacle that the protagonist is required to conquer before they can achieve fame and glory. But the truth is, losing weight is bad. Your weight is what you’re made of, so losing it is like losing a part of yourself. 

I understand, of course, that these books are fiction, so they’re not meant to be factually accurate – but there is a difference between factually inaccurate information and lies that can have extremely destructive consequences. It is painful for me to see how starvation is oversimplified and glorified in these novels. I nearly lost my life when I starved myself for two and a half years. It wasn’t easy, fun, funny or pretty. Like any serious illness, it destroyed me internally as well as externally. Starvation kills. That is the truth.

Avoiding the traps

I also know that the errors I have come across, where the effects of starvation are grossly underestimated, have not been written to hurt readers or change their attitudes. There is no cruelty or malevolence in the way language is used to describe these characters’ looks or actions. But there is a wide societal ignorance about starvation and eating disorders, and that is one of the most important things I have learnt since my diagnosis. In a way this is positive, because it shows that not everyone has been affected by the insensitivity of the young adult genre. But it does mean that raising awareness is even more crucial, so people who suffer from eating disorders can read these books and enjoy them without searching for triggers every time they turn a page.

Not all young adult books fall into this trap, however. I would like to highlight the author Becky Albertalli and the contemporary young adult novels she has written, as she deals with mental health carefully and sensitively; because of this, her books have become a source of security for me when I’m struggling with triggers that have forced me to put other books down. Her writing avoids these cliches and stereotypes, and both The Upside of Unrequited and Leah on the Offbeat present body image issues with respect and understanding. Her books provide undeniable proof that you can write without destructive stereotypes, giving readers like me a chance to rediscover the joy of reading young adult fiction. As well as being an author, Becky Albertalli is a clinical psychologist who specialises in helping children and young adults; learning this made me wonder whether her background in Psychology has given her the perspective to write so sensitively, and whether more writers could benefit from the advice of psychologists in order to increase the number of ‘trigger-less’ books on our shelves.

A pause, and a choice

Of course, there is nothing I can do about the books that are already out there. However, for current and future writers, I ask that you pause for a brief moment and think about what you’re trying to say when you describe your characters, when you give them a shape and a size and a living, breathing personality. How often do you describe them as ‘thin’? Are there more worthwhile features and personality traits that you could focus on? And if you talk about starvation – if you must include it at all – are you presenting it in a sensitive, realistic light where the negatives outweigh the positives? 

For those of you who aren’t writers, you may feel that what I’m saying is not relevant to you. But I believe that recognising the impact of the media on mental health has never been more relevant. Everyone and anyone will benefit from reading books with healthier portrayals of body image and eating, and encouraging people to actively seek out these ‘trigger-less’ books may even help to prevent the development of eating disorders such as anorexia. 

I would love to hear more examples of young adult novels that are tackling these issues with the sensitivity they deserve. When I was reading this genre before my diagnosis, I had a distorted view of starvation and its effects on the body. So many book characters seemed to go without food, I thought it would be easy to try it myself. It seemed like a shortcut to having the ideal ‘thin’ shape that our society promotes, and I couldn’t think of any negative effects it might have. As far as I was concerned, there was no reason not to starve myself. Obviously I know better now – after hearing a psychologist tell me that I was going to die if I didn’t gain weight, I was brought crashing back down to reality. But the triggers are still out there, and they still put me back in the mindset of that 15-year-old girl with distorted views of the world. To put it simply, triggers increase my chances of relapsing and dying and ceasing to exist. And it’s easy to say that I won’t read young adult novels anymore, so I won’t have to keep battling these triggers or fighting for my life. But what about people who are having these destructive thoughts and carrying out these destructive actions, who are reading these books and soaking up these lies without realising what it’s doing to their mental health? 

We don’t starve ourselves out of choice. We don’t want to starve ourselves, because refusing to eat is a suicidal act of insanity. We starve ourselves because we feel we have no choice. Because we believe that is the only way anyone will notice us. Care about us. Recognise our worth.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are things we can do, as a society, to prevent the spread of eating disorders, to help people who are starving and suffering because they feel they have no choice.

So please think about what you are writing, and what books you are recommending to others. Think about the people around you and what they might be going through. Be mindful.

In the future, maybe I will feel strong enough to read a young adult novel again. Maybe I will be able to face up to these triggers and stereotypes and lies. But for now, there is only one thing I have left to say:

I nearly died. 

I didn’t die. 

But not everyone is as fortunate as me.

-       Jenny Tan says: ‘I’m a young campaigner for increased awareness of mental health, with a focus on body image and eating disorders. I am hoping to become an author of young adult novels myself one day.’

Find more on eating disorders in our archive.

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