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Kristen Bryant / Her Campus

Book Review: Believarexic

Mental health is a hot topic right now. More than ever before, books, films, and television shows are portraying characters coping with mental illness and working diligently to break the stigma. Eating disorders, however, can be tricky. Although persons who suffer from mental illnesses can display different symptoms and behaviours, individuals with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, literally. 

Novels and movies about eating disorders often follow a similar, yet unrealistic narrative. They typically feature a white, straight, young female protagonist who denies her weight loss problems. She is then forced into treatment, which she resists until she magically gets better and effortlessly begins eating full meals again. 

Since symptoms and behaviours associated with eating disorders vary so much, reading stories like these can create false and unrealistic assumptions about eating disorders.

In her young adult novel, Believarexic, youth-counselor-turned-novelist J. J. Johnson breaks the stereotypical surface of eating disorders. It follows the story of 15-years-old Jennifer, who voluntarily calls a treatment centre because she suspects she may have an eating disorder. The story is entirely narrated by Jennifer, which offers a firsthand glimpse into her thoughts. 

Jennifer is described as thin, yet, within a healthy weight range. Since she engages in toxic behaviours in private — such as binge eating and purging, consuming diet pills, and self-harming — her parents don’t believe she really has any major problems. This forces Jennifer to engage in the same thought process as her parents. “I’m I making this all up? Am I even thin enough to have an eating disorder?,” she wonders. Her parents claim she must be doing this to gain attention. After finally getting examined by medical professionals, however, they find that Jennifer does have a problem and must be admitted to a treatment centre.

Once at the hospital, she struggles immensely with irritated nurses, a moody roommate, and invasive rules, which she is not accustomed to. Her biggest challenge, though, is coming face-to-face with the root of her problem: a strained relationship with her family, substance abuse, severe depression, and simply admitting her troubles. 

The novel is dark, as it deals with serious and compelling issues, but it is also riddled with humour and warm moments. Jennifer develops a close relationship with other girls in the treatment centre, which serves as a reminder of how understanding others can be when they’re struggling with similar issues.

What stood out to me the most is how drastically Jennifer’s character changes throughout the novel. Although facing the root of her problem and working to get better is arduous, she comes out of her experience as an improved person. Multiple times throughout the story, Jennifer notes how much she wants to recover. She comes to a point where she reminds herself that her previous behaviours will only sink her lower. With the help of psychologists and medications, Jennifer’s character grows outside of the problematic eating cycle and slowly blooms into a healthier, happier person.

What also captivated me in the novel was how normal the sequence of events seemed, especially in the beginning. For example, Jennifer and her parents question whether she even has an eating disorder, since she has a healthy weight. This sort of thinking is very frequent in real life, however it is rarely portrayed in the media. It is a common misconception that someone with an eating disorder must have a dangerously low weight to even qualify for treatment, when in fact, eating disorders are mental illnesses, not physical ones. They can occur at any age, weight or body type. 

In her novel, Johnson shows that what seems like regular teenage behaviours can actually be a severe multi-layered issue. For example, Jennifer doesn’t believe that she can possibly be addicted to alcohol, since she only drinks on weekends. But, she later realizes that she has become dependant on alcohol, and discovers how much damage her addiction is doing. 

Jennifer also believes her family dynamic is healthy at first, but as she progresses through her treatment, she discovers cracks in her relationships with her parents and brother.

When it comes to portraying eating disorders in the media, I believe that a wider variety of experiences should be represented. For example, including more POC and LGBT+ individuals, as well as more boys and men is crucial to give a true representation. Showing different types of eating disorders, such as binge disorder, orthorexia, and EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) — not only anorexia and bulimia — is necessary to give more accurate and truthful accounts of eating disorder stories. 

Although society’s view of mental illness and eating disorders still has major improvements to do, Johnson made some strides with Believarexic.

Sarah Bubenheimer

Concordia CA '22

Sarah Bubenheimer is a fourth year student at Concordia studying Philosophy, Law & Society, and Western Society & Culture. She is a Councillor for the Concordia Student Union and the Academic & Accessibility Coordinator for the Students of Philosophy Association. She is passionate about lattes, lipstick, and philosophy, and can always be found at a cafe listening to Taylor Swift. 
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