Review: Brave Girl Eating

Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia by Harriet Brown reads as a memoir, told by a mother blindsided by both her daughter’s illness and the judgments that come with it.

As an aspiring dietitian, I thought I wanted to work with an in-patient center treating eating disorders. As a young woman in a culture so obsessed with thin, I have struggled with disordered eating (though not an eating disorder) and after finding nutrition, thought I could grow up to help teens through the struggle of an eating disorder. I thought I could do that best through working at a residential center.

Reading Brave Girl Eating has completely changed my outlook on my future career. Part-memoir, part-research, the author cites many statistics questioning the standard in-patient treatment method and offers another option: Family Based Treatment. Brown discusses the treatment–at odds though it is with conventional wisdom–and it’s effectiveness.

Traditional thinking dictates that parents are too controlling or critical and thus the child struggling with anorexia is acting out and must “choose” to eat. Parents are expected to watch as their child wastes away–they diligently follow doctors’ orders to “not be the food police.” However, Brown asserts that this thinking is based on outdated thinking and faulty correlations. She advocates a method  that makes scientific sense and offers parents the opportunity to do something proactive: feed their child. The reasoning for this is that a child who is severely malnourished can’t clearly reason, especially about food in the case of anorexia–there is not enough glucose in her system. The Family Based Treatment program brings the patient back to health and then works on the underlying emotional issues.

Speaking of emotional issues, this book puts forth an argument that seemed pretty compelling to me: therapists don’t see the family and its dynamics until long after the family is in the clutches of anorexia. So, of course by then the parents have become overly critical about what their daughter is eating, and of course she tries to manipulate the situation so that she doesn’t eat! She is terrified of becoming fat and her body image is completely warped. So, the allegation that parents are too critical and controlling and drive their daughter to assert the only control she can (control over what she eats), is a case of proclaiming causation where there is only correlation.

In any case, the book is a very interesting read, throwing our culture’s obsession with skinny, current ideas about eating disorders, and the lack of information about anorexia into sharp relief. The book is well-researched, compellingly argued, and (I would wager) a different take on the illness than most are familiar with. I would recommend this book as quite the page-turner to anyone interested in learning about anorexia, whether about facts or about the struggle.

Brave Girl Eating by Harriet Brown, published in 2010 by HarperCollins Publishers, available at Barnes and Noble and IndieBound.

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