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Writing ‘Issues’ Novels, by Kate Gordon

My first book, Three Things About Daisy Blue, featured a protagonist who was suffering from an eating disorder. Daisy  was obsessed with counting kilojoules, restricting her food intake and reducing her size. She was already thin but, when she looked in the mirror, she saw a plain, dumpy girl looking back at her. And Daisy didn’t want to be plain. Daisy wanted to be thin and beautiful, so she’d be liked and accepted by her peers.

Daisy’s story isn’t an unusual one. In the “real world”, survey after survey tells us that body image is the number one concern for young people today. Panicked parents and “experts” direct blame to celebrities – praying-mantis-like models and scantily-clad pop stars. They hold up airbrushed magazines and billboards featuring near-naked women as examples of a culture that is damaging their children; making them look at their bodies more critically, and placing unrealistic expectations on their appearances.

There’s no denying that the media and pop culture plays a role in teenagers’ perceptions of themselves. But these are not the only culprits behind poor body image. However, Anorexia and bulimia existed long before Photoshop was invented. To place the blame for the so-called eating disorder “epidemic” solely on the shoulders of media and magazines is naïve and even dangerous.

The cause of Daisy’s eating disorder appears, at first, to be an obsession with pop culture and the beauty ideal put forward by media outlets. In reality, her problem goes much deeper than that. While Daisy may seem, at first, to be a chaotic, spontaneous personality, in reality she is seeking for a semblance of control over her life; a life she feels she has never held autonomy over. She is yearning for the attention of her busy speechwriter mother. And she is desperate to avoid being lonely. She is desperate to fit in and she believes being thin and pretty is the solution to doing this.

Every young person who suffers from an eating disorder, body dysmorphia or simply low self-esteem has manifold reasons for their situation. To ascribe the entire blame for this increasing problem amongst teenagers to the media alone neglects to examine the real causes and, in doing that, provides only a surface solution.

So what has all of this got to do with YA novels? Well, as writers of YA we have a responsibility to portray young people with honesty. We have a responsibility to examine the issues that concern them thoroughly and without laziness. Like it or not, the young people who read our books take what we say to heart. Teenagers invest so much in the books they read. There are books I read as a teen that still live inside me; that still inform the way I live now. If we choose to write novels that examine issues facing young people, it is so important that we do this with sensitivity and with our eyes wide open; that we don’t respond to sensationalism. That we treat our protagonists as if they were real people with complex reasons for their actions and behaviours.

Very few girls with anorexia suffer from the disease solely because of Rihanna film clips.

Not every boy with body dysmorphia suffers from this disorder because of Taylor Lautner’s “buff” body in twilight.

One of the most disappointing moments in my writing career was hearing that a parent refused to let her young daughter read Three Things About Daisy Blue because she believed Daisy presented a negative role model. She thought that it would be damaging for her daughter to read about Daisy’s eating disorder and body image obsession. I wanted to ask how she intended to tackle the issue of body image should it come up with her daughter. Would she demonise Photoshop and Lady Gaga? Would she tell her daughter that people with eating disorders are shallow and weak-minded? Of course, it was that mother’s prerogative to withhold my book from her daughter, but I hoped the girl was able, one day, to read books that examined honestly problems that she would probably face in her young life. Young people need to see themselves reflected in literature. Whether they’re being bullied, or having problems with their schoolwork; whether they’re being abused at home or victimised online, it helps them to know they’re not alone.

It’s our responsibility to populate our books with true, real characters who keep them company through their dark times. And to make certain that those characters are not stereotypes informed by a hysterical media.

We might never know how important our words will be in the life of a teenager.

***

Kate Gordon author website: www.kategordon.com.au

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