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Second Generation Librarian.

Isabelle Lee (age 13) is coping with the loss of her father and her mother’s grieving by falling into a pattern of bingeing and purging. When she’s caught by her 10 year old sister April (aka “Ape Face”) she is forced by her mother to go to “Group” – a small support group for young women with eating disorders. She’s staring at gross orange shag carpeting when Ashley Barnum, the most beautiful, popular girl in the 8th grade walks in and sits down. The two become unlikely friends as a result of their shared secret and soon begin engaging in symptoms together. Ashley is everything that Isabelle has ever aspired to be, and her friendship re-enforces Isabelle’s self-destructive behaviour. Can Isabelle remain true to herself, keep her friendship with Ashley and get well at the same time?

I admit – I had a very personal reaction to this book. At first, I thought that I would probably not recommend it for young women who struggle with eating disorders, since it might be seen as partially triggering. Isabelle and Amanda enumerate the “tips and tricks” of how to binge and purge more effectively throughout the book. Friend doesn’t pull any punches as far as illustrating how chaotic, desperate and horrifying binge eating can be, and for those empathetic readers who are going through the process of recovery themselves, it might be all too familiar. However, as I thought about it more, these passages, while powerful, might be considered almost superficial when considering the book’s larger message. Here’s why:

Perfect emphasizes that eating disorders are often caused by other emotions beyond a desire to be thin. Yes, Isabelle comments about her “fat” appearance, but it’s not really her main preoccupation. The death of her father, her mother’s grief, her feelings of alienation from her family are all much more present in the book than her desire to be thin. More importantly, the “fat” part of her concern is never present during any of the binge/purge scenes, which are mainly reactive to her feelings about her father. Ashley, too, while making the obligatory comments about her thighs while looking in her underwear, is symptomatic as a result of the absenteeism of her parents and her loneliness, rather than a fear of fat. While at first it bothered me that these reasons were “too facile” – that they didn’t really offer up the larger picture that some issues which lead to eating disorders are more vague and harder to pinpoint that absentee or deceased parents. Then I decided that this book is for pre-teens and I was reading too much into it with personal bias and maybe I should relax a little bit. ^^

While, as I mentioned before, Friend’s writing spares no expense in the description of the “gory details” of bingeing and purging, there was never any mention of the fact that Ashley or Isabelle gained or lost weight because of their symptoms. It’s given that Ashley looks gorgeous all the time, but Isabelle never comments on changes in her own weight. The fact that there is never any “positive” outcome of all their behaviours is another reason I think that this book is “safe for consumption,” if you will. Also, it’s interesting and gratifying to see an author writing about bulimia, rather than anorexia. One problem I have with the treatment of eating disorders in the media and society at large is that while people (in general) are perfectly happy to discuss restrictive behaviours and show endless pictures of emaciated models, no one seems to be willing to talk about bulimia or binge-eating disorder because, well, it’s messy. Hopefully, an increase in narratives like this will work to make this disorder less taboo and illustrate the prevalence of its effects on our culture.

Finally, Perfect spreads the same message I think we should all keep in mind – that eating disorders don’t only affect the people who “look like it.” They can also be wreaking havoc in the life of that quiet girl of average weight sitting in the corner of the cafeteria that never gets noticed.
Perfect by Natasha Friend

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