I generally have a soft spot for issues-driven teen fiction. I think it is an increasingly important genre as teens are increasingly overwhelmed by issues that weren’t even thought of ten years ago. Not just in pervasive cyberbullying, but in the very permanent nature of our mistakes now. Even though Google has been ordered to help people be forgotten, there is a very real possibility that a stupid night out can now follow a person around for a long, long time. And while there are benefits to social media, it admittedly comes with its own set of problems that we’re struggling to solve.
But I digress (mildly). A long-standing and increasingly desperate problem is that of anorexia. Yes, I know, maybe it’s pretty stupid that teen girls starve themselves to death, but Jesus Christ, we have toddlers going on diets. Body politics are becoming increasingly invasive and more powerful. Instagram and Pinterest, those rising superpowers, are the unofficial domain of only beautiful people and beautiful things. Pinterest is trying to shut down pro-ana and pro-mia boards, (Tumblr has made great progress in that regard) but I doubt they have the capacity to manage it.
And these boards and terrible online spaces appear in Wintergirls. This is the story of Lia, a girl who loses her best friend Cassie, and who feels that her dead friend is compelling her to get thinner. Lia thinks she’s getting stronger, that being 95 pounds (43kgs) will make her perfect and beautiful. But the reader can only watch her slowly dying and laying her family to waste. And it seems so real, to get so obsessed with losing weight. It is a shadow in the back of many women’s minds, something I can certainly relate to. Not the cutting, or the puking, but the admiration is very hard to give up. As someone who has recently lost a noticeable amount of weight (through dieting and running, of course), it is very easy to feed on and puff up from the praise of those who notice. It becomes difficult not to seek that praise more often through faster and more destructive methods of weight-loss.
Anderson knows this, and uses it in her writing. Lia is not that far removed from many of us – strained parental relations, trouble at school, low self-esteem. She finds that being thin makes her popular, that dieting will give her control over her rudderless life. Worse, she can find reinforcement at the click of a button, from the pleas and praise of other starving girls who have lost control over everything, even when it seems their lives are getting better as their jeans get looser.
This is the kind of book that so needs to be in school libraries, that must be visible to girls as young as ten, eight or seven. That maybe one of them with a problem might read it, and realise that maybe she’s heading down the same terrible path as Cassie. It is an update of The Best Little Girl in the World. This is not a heavy-handed lecture, but a story that might switch on the light for someone, somewhere. For that reason alone (but amongst others), this is a particularly important book.
Wintergirls is now available in paperback from all good bookstores.