Thursday, October 16, 2014

45 Pounds (More or Less)

I'm so torn about this book.  Objectively, I can say that it's an important book to have in a library collection.  Let's start from there.

Ann's tried every diet in the book, and then some.  Whatever she's lost, she's regained.  It's time to buy a new swimsuit and everything is too stringy or too revealing or it doesn't even come in her size. She's a size seventeen and sixteen years old.

Ann's mother seems effortlessly slim, and constantly berates Ann for her height and eating habits.  K.A. Barton does a good job of examining how a mother's perception of herself passes to her children--to Ann, and to her younger daughter Libby.  For example, when pregnant with twins, "she shrieked about how she had never worn a medium in her life and referred to herself as a cow.  Ever since then, I've removed all the size tags from my clothes."  I'll get into Ann and her mom later.

The general plot is that Ann's aunt is getting married to her partner, and they ask Ann to be a bridesmaid.  None of the nice dresses fit, and Ann resolves to lose 45 pounds (hence the title) by the time of the wedding.  She sees an infomercial for a diet program on TV while she's staying at her Grandma's house (fun fact: her grandmother calls everyone "fat*ss," which Ann brushes off.  "Gram calls pretty much everyone fat *ss, especially those she doesn't know or like.  (Never me or anyone else she loves)."  Ann, honey, your grandmother is equating being fat with being worthless, unlikeable, or stupid.  I don't care if it's her "quirkiness" coming out.  It's not the innocent thing you pretend it is.

Okay, veering back on course(-ish) here: Ann purchases the diet system, but of course there's a loophole that means that she has to pay a lot more for her prepackaged meals than she thought.  Time to get a job.  She applies at Snapz! (yes, the exclamation point is part of the name.  Last time I saw punctuation used like that in a store name was dELIA*s, but whatever), but since she can't fit into the largest size they have and all employees have to wear Snapz! clothes, it's a no-go.  However, she does get a job at the Twisted Pretzel, where she starts hanging out with the most normal of the Cool Girls at her school, Raynee.  The Cool Girls are called the Knees, by the way.


Actually, it turns out Raynee is a decent human being, and she doesn't fit in with the nasty other Knees as much as Ann thought.  Raynee makes her own clothes--or alters them, at least, and has a serious case of Personal Style.  She doesn't care about Ann's weight or make comments about it.  I liked Raynee a lot--she's not the kind of backstabber I thought she would be.  That role is delegated to pretty much every other female in Ann's life.

Like her step-grandmother (is that even a thing? Her stepdad's mom.) Regina.


There is no way that that wasn't intentional.  Sorry for the double negative, English teachers.  Regina is sort of like Cruella De Vil, but without the fur addiction.  She's just insanely mean.  Coming in a close second is Ann's own mom, who constantly fat-shames her and tsk-tsks what Ann eats, which makes Ann upset, which means she eats even more to feel better.  Ann's ex-best friend, Raynee's co-Knees, and even Gram, to an extent, are all hyper-conscious of Ann's weight and they treat her like poo.  

So Ann starts this new diet system revolution! and starts losing weight.  Although she takes a few of the metabolism pills, she doesn't like the way they make her feel and she stops.  The food tastes like cardboard or worse than cardboard, but she continues on as her mother makes perfect meals for the whole family but then barely partakes of them herself.  At these meals, Ann begins to notice something odd: her little sister Libby mimics Mom's behavior.  She'll push aside her food and say she just can't eat another bite.  Or she'll tell her dolls that they're "too fat."  Ann resolves to stop the extreme dieting and just live more healthily and teach that to her sister.  

There's also a mild love story here, with a guy who's just a normal guy that Ann finds attractive.  It's not the Hollywood scenario of Totally Hot Dude falls for Normal Girl and Normal Girl is actually a Hottie In Disguise.  

All of the peripherals make this a rather nice YA read.  But I had some problems with it.  Those problems may not even stem from the book itself, but from my own mind.  The book is too tidy and neat when it discusses Ann's weight.  No, she doesn't lose the 45 pounds, but she does realize that she is an emotional eater and that the focus she be on being healthy and not being thin.  That's great--but someone who's struggled with disordered eating probably wouldn't come to that conclusion and put it into practice within a few weeks.  That's the thing with disordered eating: you know it's wrong, you know why it's wrong, but it's just so hard to stop.  I know.

So don't yell at me that I have thin privilege and can't discuss this book.  In society right now, I do have thin privilege.  But I also understand, to a good extent, Ann's dilemma.  When I was in high school, I ate whatever I wanted.  I don't necessarily think I ate copious amounts of food (I've never eaten a whole pan of brownies, for instance, or two value meals, super-sized), but I did eat things that didn't nourish my body properly.  I vividly remember eating powdered Kool-Aid out of a tub because it was sour and sour is my favorite flavor.  I also didn't exercise, mostly because I was embarrassed that I wasn't the same lithe, tan figure as most of the other girls in my class.  Sure, I did dance, but outside of school, all I had time for was homework and A&E book adaptation marathons (back when A&E was, you know, informative).  I won't put numbers here, because I find that triggering, but let's just say I wasn't as heavy as Ann, but I was much heavier than was healthy.  

As a senior, I made a conscious decision to work out regularly and eat more balanced meals.  I did this with my dad, which really helped a lot.  I got stronger and could move around faster and found that I could enjoy my food without tons of frosting or cheese dip.  When I hit college, though, I felt like the only thing I could control was my weight.  So I controlled it.  Technically, I wasn't bulimic, because I didn't binge, and I wasn't anorexic, because I never suffered amenorrhea.  I had EDNOS--eating disorder not otherwise defined.  I'd have a nonfat sugar free latte from the local campus coffee roasters (NOT Starbucks), throw it up, and then go do modern dance for two hours.  I was sick and scared and ashamed.

With a lot of help, I stopped the dangerous behaviors, and now I make conscious decisions not to label foods as "bad" or "fat" (I do have a jar of bacon fat in my fridge, as would any good German girl), but it's really, really, really hard.  I'll never say that I "recovered" from an eating disorder, or that I'm cured.  The thought patterns that the disorder creates never leave.  In the back of my mind, they're always there, circling like sharks and waiting for me to falter while I try to keep my head above water.  This, too, is good: the realization that I have to keep fighting my crazy brain.  If I thought I was "cured," I might not notice if these sharks slide into my mind and eat my sanity (or what's left of it).  I know my triggers, and usually books don't bother me that much.  I think Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls is an extraordinary book, and it really helped me keep my resolve to think of these behaviors as deadly and not as an aid to being skinny.  Other girls and guys, however, might find detailed descriptions of disordered behaviors triggering.

I was really excited about 45 Pounds (More or Less).  Ann is a fun girl.  Pretty much everyone at school likes her--she's not a pariah by any means.  She's weathered a ton of family problems, and she is resilient.  But I found that her account of checking the scale and eating the meals and exercising made me feel inadequate.  I started thinking, "Maybe I'm not eating healthily enough.  Ann probably eats better than I do.  At least she runs.  I'm not a runner," and I almost didn't finish the book.  As someone who restricted like Ann's mother, I started to rationalize her behavior before I realized that my reasoning was quickly becoming unhealthy.  I ended up skimming passages about weight just to get to the end.  Plus, I was on a plane while reading this, so it wasn't like I could get up and clear my head.  Trapped in a tiny seat at 30,000 feet is not the ideal place to have a minor mental crisis.

To be clear: I don't blame the book at all for how I reacted.  I just want people to know that it is a possibility that you'll feel this way, even just a little bit.  I understood Ann's mom and I understood Ann's determination to lose weight.  I just don't think that her sudden switch from disordered eating to acceptance would have plausibly happened so quickly.  

So now you know more about me than a lot of people do.  But know this, too: I want girls of every size and color in novels.  I want to read about all of them because they are all important.  I don't want any girl to feel self-conscious about her body.  I don't care what your body looks like.  Fighting my own messy thoughts has led me to fight against the statements and behaviors that teach girls and boys that they have to think and act this way in order to be thin.  

After all of that, I suppose this means the book succeeded.  It made me think and it made me hurt.  The prose could have been a bit snappier, and the secondary characters less cardboard cutout-y, but overall, this is a very important book to have in any library collection.  You might love it or hate it, but you'll think about it.  And that is a very good thing indeed.

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