Grace Bowman,
(Penguin UK, 2007)

"If I share a secret with you, do you promise to tell everyone?"

In Thin, Grace Bowman has done an exceptional job of portraying a young woman's descent into the illness of anorexia. This story is her own, yet it is also an experience many young women share.

Bowman writes with a lyrical yet staccato quality to her prose that engages while holding the reader at arm's length as she writes in the third-person throughout much of the book. She sets her story up as a stage play. The stage is set, the curtain rises on her addiction, "game on." This illustrates her sense of looking in on herself from the outside, a disconnectedness that she describes as "a blankness, a lack of id," a sense of distance from the body. She describes a lack of identity which is filled by her addiction to starving. "What am I?" she asks. Her thinness is worn like a badge or honor. It is her identity, a way to be seen and yet not seen. "See me not-eating!"

Bowman switches to the first person and becomes more personal. She speaks to us through both an "inside voice" and an "outside voice," describing a numbing detachment that makes her unsure of "what a feeling is or how to really describe it," an emotional paralysis, disengaged from feeling and believing unconsciously that self-esteem will emerge from a thinner body.

She asks herself why she uses self-starving as an answer to uncertainty and fear of failure. She explains how as she grew up and adult decisions suddenly loomed, nothing seemed certain anymore -- except what she did or didn't eat. Her fear turned to action in the guise of a strictly controlled diet. She describes how anorexics often share the commonality of low self-esteem and the lack of ability to learn from experience. They try to forge a self through losing weight and changing their shape, mistakenly believing that happiness will result.

Even into young adulthood, as she tells her story, important people remain nameless with only titles, such as "best friend" and "boyfriend." She does all the things that are expected of her, or rather, that she expects of herself, but still, as she moves to London and lands a corporate job, she is moving as if in a dream, choosing random streams and then following them, with her secret self locked safely away. Everything is simply on the surface. Her desire for everything else is diminished as she fights her hunger for food.

She starts eating a bit while at university to appear normal, but still doesn't feel "normal" inside. It is still all a stage play. She then consciously decides to move away from the addiction and fights her compulsion to starve, as her mind shouts at her, "Stop eating. Hide away." Recovery, she explains, is about growth and learning to embrace change, rather than fighting it. For her, it is a shift in perception that leads to the emergence of feelings. She finds the courage to begin to move away from the addiction, and establishes a relationship with the world outside of her self-absorption and obsessive relationship with food and the shape of her body.

Bowman has done an exceptional job of explaining how the disease of anorexia is a "secret, personal and private territory." She drives home the desperation and isolation the disease causes, and portrays in depth the insecurity, self-loathing, fear, and perfectionist tendencies that so many with this affliction share. I wish the publisher had kept the original title of this book, "A Shape of My Own," because that is really what the author is searching for and growing into, a unique essence that is hers alone. She searches for identity, for the thing that sets her apart. Ultimately, this is a story of hope. She has never completely recovered, and still has food rules that she must follow, but she has learned to successfully integrate herself with the authentic world and find peace of mind within herself.

book review by
Lee Lukaszewicz

2 September 2017

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