As someone who has struggled with disordered eating, I was very eager to dig into Thinandbeautiful.com. This young adult book was written by Liane Shaw, a teacher who once struggled with anorexia. The story follows Maddie, an anorexic teenage girl who finds herself sucked into the "pro-ana" (pro-anorexia) website thinandbeautiful.com. Thinking no one understands how she feels about her weight and her body, Maddie pushes her friends and family away, finding her only comfort in the virtual arms of her online friends.
The story finds Maddie in a sort of rehab facility for eating disorders where she is told to keep a journal chronicling her descent into anorexia. The action shifts back and forth between the journal entries describing how Maddie fell into anorexic thinking (it all began when a doctor during a routine examination warns her to be careful about gaining "unwanted pounds") to the present day, her time in the rehab facility and her feelings that no one understands her "need" to be thinner. It's only when Maddie gets tragic news about one of her online friends that she begins to come to terms with the idea that she might have a problem.
Thinandbeautiful.com starts slowly. The journal format is difficult to get into, partially because it didn't really feel like the words of a seventeen-year-old girl. It read like the words of an adult trying to write as if she were a seventeen-year-old girl. In fact, it is reminiscent of the after school specials you might have watched in the late eighties.
Describing the descent into anorexia is difficult; the early parts of the book are slow and convoluted and don't really help to explain why someone would decide that their weight it isn't good enough, no matter how thin they may be. In fact, as much as the early pages of this book talk about Maddie's desire to be "thin and healthy," there is little mention of what her actual weight currently is or what she thinks it should be. Her goal is simply to be thinner, but there is little behind that desire. Her desire to be thin is fueled only by a vague notion that "thinner is better," not any idea about how her life will be different when she reaches her undefined magic goal weight.
I’m not saying there has to be a rational reason behind an irrational way of thinking, but I do think eating disorders are usually fueled by more than just a desire to be thin. It’s a perception that something else is lacking or that the thinness will help the sufferer achieve something, such as control. That’s why I found Maddie’s struggle difficult to identify with and understand.
About halfway through the book, once the journal entries reach their apex and Maddie really starts to confront her feelings about her family and her online friends, the story starts to resonate. You may not understand why Maddie has an eating disorder, but you do understand she’s hurting and that she’s struggling to find a way to conquer her illness. It is in the last third of the book that you feel the author's connection to the material; the words finally start to ring true and the book becomes genuine, just when it matters most.
However, Thinandbeautiful.com is a case of too little, too late. Those final glimpses aren't enough to recommend the book. Someone struggling with the same thoughts as Maddie may find Thinandbeautiful.com comforting, but those trying to understand why someone would starve themselves will find this novel lacking.