I am starting to think it is impossible to read a decent YA book about eating disorders. The only two that are worth reading are Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson and Believarexic by J.J. Johnson. However, as someone who had an ED and still wrestles with the messed up thoughts and emotions related to it, I find myself oddly drawn to these books. I challenge them. I read them critically and poke and prod the characters to see if they are authentic. I don't expect happy stories all the time, with loving parents and teachers and friends, but I do expect teens to be shown that they matter, and that someone cares enough about them that they'll be removed from a dangerous situation. Although the inner voice of Elizabeth, the protagonist of What I Lost, is on point, other aspects of the story overshadow what is good.
Reading books about ED and self-harm and mental illness is exhausting. I spend a lot of time on them, noting problems and marking questions and wondering how certain ideas or phrases got past editors to make it into the hands of teens. I wonder at books like Sad Perfect, which I honestly think poses a danger to teens who are self-harming or who have an eating disorder, and I am angry that people praise it. What I Lost has a more authentic voice than Sad Perfect, but also contains far too many problems for me to recommend it. I'm not saying you cannot enjoy this book or learn something from it--you can. But I ask that you remain aware of how words and numbers harm, and the thoughtless use of words and numbers can harm young readers.
Elizabeth is being put into inpatient treatment for anorexia. She's in denial, and her mother is definitely in denial, because mom has the same problems. In fact, she's encouraged an unhealthy discourse about food and weight and looks as far back as Elizabeth can remember. And although her dad is a really nice guy, he's too intimidated by her mom to make anyone get help.
The book chronicles her time at Wallingford, the girls she meets, their struggles, et cetera. Slowly, we discover Elizabeth's mother's role in encouraging disordered eating, and her own eating disorder, but in the end, Elizabeth returns home with her parents and everyone is going to get better together. Or something.
No! No they're not! It's supremely irresponsible of everyone in this book to assign Elizabeth's post-treatment care to her mother, who criticizes the calorie counts and food exchanges and makes comments about how that's going to make her daughter fat. They've put mom in a position where she can actively harm her daughter's recovery.
I guess this is a book about the complicated relationships we have with our parents and with food and with our children, but please--PLEASE--do not explore these complications through the lens of ED, and specifically anorexia nervosa, which is the deadliest mental illness. Studies consistently state that about one in four people with anorexia will die from it. That is a very, very high mortality rate. And in What I Lost, Elizabeth's team throws her back into the lion's den and her chances of recovery get lower and lower.
Aside from my general crankiness with how Elizabeth's situation is "resolved," I took umbrage with other aspects of the book as well. While she's at Wallingford, Elizabeth describes her interactions with the other girls there, and almost all of them have a strange sort of negative descriptor. Admittedly, this may be due to Elizabeth's lack of self-confidence or the way her ED has warped her view of the world, but the girl-on-girl hate, the body shaming, and the fact that the patient with bulimia nervosa is described multiple times as "a lump" who doesn't need to eat any more really cross the line. I am very aware that these comments are realistic, but there is no pushback within the narrative to demonstrate to the reader that these kinds of labels are wrong and hurtful. I would be more understanding of the girls all judging each other if someone called them out on it. Here are some examples:
"Lexi spoke then. 'Kids called me Amy Winehouse.' Ouch. Amy Winehouse was a rock star who died from alcohol poisoning. She'd been anorexic, too, with an unfortunate whorl of black hair right below each ear, like Lexi."
It's been several weeks since I finished this book and it's still hard for me to unpack all the weird nope in this tiny paragraph. Amy Winehouse had bulimia, to start with. What really throws me here is the "unfortunate whorl of black hair" comment. Amy's hair was part of her persona--this larger-than-life, almost Marie-Antoinette level of towering beehive. Is Elizabeth saying Amy was ... hairy? And even if she was, so what? I'm hairy. Lots of ladies are hairy. Yay for genetics!
"Jean was tall and awkward, like a female Abraham Lincoln. 'She's really nice though. Maybe the nicest.' Willa said."
Aw, good to know that the not-pretty-but-thank-goodness-you're-nice judgment of women is still going strong!
" 'Just remember, Elizabeth.' Katrina balled up her lunch bag. 'Starving yourself is so emo.' She turned on her heel and headed toward the trash can. Emo. Melodramatic. Drama queen. Is that what Katrina really thought?"
Cool, one of Elizabeth's "best friends" equates having an ED with being "emo." Which, aside from being one of the lamest insults I've ever read, is a very hurtful statement. How is a mental disorder that causes ritual self-starvation equivalent to wearing black liner and listening to pretty boys sing about heartbreak over loud guitar riffs?
Elizabeth makes it through inpatient by clinging to the hope that her ex-boyfriend Charlie is the one sending her adorably mysterious presents in the mail. As you probably guessed, it's not him. It's his best friend, Tristan, whose sister is also in treatment. I guess acting like a stalker but being nasty to a girl to her face is romantic, because Elizabeth falls for him. Ugh.
Now that I think about it, all the guys in this book (except for one of the nurses) are weak-minded ninnys who run away from life's problems instead of confronting them. Charlie, breaks up with Elizabeth after he doesn't have sex with her because he's afraid she'll "break." OR you could get your girlfriend some help. Like legitimate, psychiatric help, instead of pouting about a lack of sex and going back to your old girlfriend. But don't worry, guys, the therapist frames Charlie's actions as genuine concern for Elizabeth's health. I dunno--if he really cared that much he should have done something.
And what about stalker Tristan? He admits to feeling disgusted by Elizabeth's illness, but sends her gifts as a weird sort of penance and then somehow falls in love with her despite never really knowing who she is or what she wants from life or the momentous task of recovery that she is facing. In the beginning, he tells her that people "choose" to have ED and that "All she has to do is not puke. It's not like you guys have cancer.' "
Then there's Elizabeth's dad, who knows that his wife has an eating disorder but chastizes his daughter for calling her mom out on nasty comments and hypocritical behavior. Instead of dealing with the issues and having the difficult conversations, he goes to bed at 9 PM every night and thinks he can "fix" his daughter by feeding her spaghetti.
However, the hardest part of this book for me to wrap my head around is that Elizabeth's health care team allowed her to go home with someone who was actively encouraging an eating disorder. When she finds out that her daughter has to regain weight, her concern is that Elizabeth not gain too much and get fat. If you were a doctor and you heard that, wouldn't that set alarm bells ringing? This may inform the way Elizabeth talks about size and weight, but again, because no other character checks her statements, teens who read this might believe that Elizabeth's perception is correct. For example, when comparing herself to her mother, Elizabeth says, "I got my dad's genes, my grandma liked to say, which meant I vacillated between average and chubby, depending on whether it was cross-country season or not." What's average? What's chubby? Average for me is not average for you. Average is a horrible, horrible thing to apply to weight. In the next chapter, during her intake, Elizabeth tells the nurse that her highest weight was 130 pounds.
130 pounds. 130 pounds? 130 pounds is NOT fat or chubby or awful or any of the things that it's made out to be in the text. It was at this weight that Elizabeth's mother would tell her that her hips, thighs, and "chubby knees" were not attractive.
Look, I can't articulate how wrong that is with any more clarity or eloquence because words are literally failing me. I have a fluttering, panicky anger in the middle of my chest.
Finally, let's talk about the cover design. I know that authors have little-to-no control over the cover design, but hey, graphic design person: putting a GIANT CHOCOLATE BAR on the cover of a book about eating disorders is the definition of "Oh, heck no!" in the dictionary. Go look it up.
Whatever. I will say that Elizabeth's internal monologue is completely spot-on. A lot of the feelings she had are ones that I've had, too. That was authentic and raw. The idea that when you eat a "bad" food, you can physically feel the fat glomming onto your body. Or the irrational fear of numbers and sizes. Or the feeling of being totally out of control when you eat because somehow it's become so much easier to starve. All of that was wonderfully written.
Overall, a good grasp of the self-talk involved with ED is drowned out by boyfriend drama and mom drama and numbers drama.
I received an ARC of this title from the publisher via Netgalley.