|| Print ||
|Written by Morgan Whitfield|
|Tuesday, 16 June 2009 19:00|
- excerpt from Sylvia Plath’s "The Other"
A dangerous swirl of hormones, a dollop of identity crisis, a sprinkling of family strife, baked in an environment of bullying, cliques and cool will inevitably react with a wee genetic inheritance to result in ‘teenage’ behaviour. While teenage years are filled with angst, drama and self-discovery, they are also filled with mental illness. The Canadian Psychological Association recently reported that, while 1.2 million youth in Canada under the age of 20 have diagnosable psychological disorders, only five percent are receiving any kind of psychological treatment.
While the challenges of youth today are simultaneously trivialized, idolized, and fortified, there is also an instinct that drives us to shelter these kids from getting any crazy ideas from their friends, their TV shows, or their surroundings. But is it really culture that makes us sick? Or is mental illness inevitable? Does the desire to gently draw beads of blood from the skin on your thigh using a paper clip come from magazine articles or from inner despair?
A new young adult novel by Laurie Halse Anderson has encapsulated this debate. Wintergirls relates in careful, loving detail the story of two teenage girls and their self-destructive behaviour. Mental health experts have accused the novel of being triggering and destructive. Its realistic portrayal of cutting, suicide, drug use and eating disorders is detailed and exact: a how-to guide for falling off the edge.
Anderson seems to realize the conflict within the book, demonstrating the creepy influence that ‘ana’ and ‘mia’ websites have on the protagonist, and pointing out how this subculture reinforces itself. Girls who want to hurt themselves will find icons everywhere and anywhere, but how easy should it be for them? Where does the line fall between informative and cautioning educational material, and provoking and dangerous instigation?
Perhaps the difference in this generation’s consumer culture, the triggering material is contextual. Wintergirls may be regurgitating self harm and starvation techniques that are present in Shakespeare’s Hamlet or the poems of Sylvia Plath, but when packaged in a sparkly blue cover, psychological despair is prettily cool.
Strangely, young adult writing that challenges the standard norms of healthy body size is not examined. An example that went largely unnoticed is the Sweet Valley High book series. In the 1980s, the blonde twin heroines were wearing “a perfect size 6”, but newer editions have the girls wearing “a perfect size 4”. This slight shift downward seems to have captured our collective culture’s anorexic mentality.
The question of ‘triggering’ a mental illness seems lead cultural commentators to draw strange lines in the sand. Recent controversies have occurred at universities over whether calorie content should be posted on all food in meal halls and cafeterias, post-secondary institutions being a hotbed for eating disorders. Is this as dangerous as a fictional character mentally tabulating every bite of food she eats and yearns for? Is guarding nutritional information from young adults at mealtime parallel to schools and parents omitting Wintergirls from libraries?
The environmental factors that could lead to eating disorders seem ubiquitous; one cannot purchase food in the supermarket without being confronted with tabloid photos of the "Best and Worst Beach Bodies" at the check out. While the genetic component to eating disorders, mood disorders, and even self-mutilation, cannot be ignored, the famous Minnesota Starvation Studies clearly suggest that an eating disorder can be induced. Dieting can become addictive once started. During the Minnesota experiment, the semi-starved male participants lost approximately 25% of their weight; they became obsessed with food and body image, restricted themselves further, and became depressed. Several of the men continued to diet, binge, purge, and count calories years after the experiment. If this is the result in previously healthy and mentally sound grown men, the increased incidence of eating disorders amongst youth today who are pressured to be thin is hardly shocking.
The popularity of self harm is a disturbing movement that is also gloried in over 400 websites and is a prevalent part of youth culture. An MSN report on ‘cutting’ revealed that 17% of the surveyed 2,875 young adults at Cornell and Princeton had attempted self mutilation. Of these, 75% had done it more than once. A 2008 study of 508 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders found that 7.5% had committed self injury. Why the increase? (Or is it that we are we just now really noticing and tracking the trend?) The need to perform self mutilation is reported to come from a lack of coping abilities; the desire to punish oneself is a process of turning inward, as opposed to turning outward, to get help. This issue should be confronted in schools, and through literature that addresses the root feelings and suggests alternative methods of managing emotions.
While it may seem that books such as Wintergirls glamorize these disturbing trends, readers have been reported to find comfort in reading the book. Young adult reviewers have attested that the book has taken away their sense of isolation, and provided a realistic mirror of the true challenges they face. Obviously, Wintergirls is a good place to begin a dialogue. The book’s realism should be applauded, for it truly gives a glimpse into the life of the modern teenager, which, if anything, should trigger us to improve their toxic environment.