Life & Culture

Book review: Good Girls: A Story and Study of Anorexia - Perfectionist girls who starve

Hadley Freeman's eating disorder memoir is a vital contribution that it’s hoped will change how we understand anorexia


Journalist Hadley Freeman. Byline John Nguyen/JNVisuals 03/01/2022

Good Girls: A Story and
Study of Anorexia
by Hadley Freeman
Harper Collins £14.99

As a pupil at a high-performing girls’ school, I didn’t knowingly encounter many depressives or addicts.

But one thing every yeargroup had was anorexics; not just girls who had taken their diets a bit far, but girls who were hospitalised, sometimes for months, often more than once. And what they had in common was that they were perfectionists, neat, tidy, well-behaved.

They were, as JC columnist Hadley Freeman puts it in her devastating memoir Good Girls, primed by years of rule-following to adhere to the strict regimes involved with declaring war on food.

It’s only 25 years on that I realise how strange it was that we took for granted that classmates were starving themselves. This was the era of Size Zero, the waning days of Heroin Chic. Thin was what we were supposed to want.

But as Freeman makes clear from brutal experience, anorexia is not really about weight, nor skinny celebrities on Instagram. And while it may sometimes be a “rich girl’s problem”, it is no less serious for it.

What sent her and so many others spiralling into an existence of endless star jumps and panicking about the calories in yoghurt is a desire to shrink from the world. Not eating, she explains, was a way to seize control; a rejection of femininity.

“I wanted to be suspended in time, a permanent child, skinny and scrappy,” she says. “That was how I felt safe.”

Freeman was 14 and at an all-girls’ private school when she stopped eating; a chance remark that set off three years of being institutionalised, released only to relapse, and sent back.

Three years during which she lost touch with friends, fell behind on her education, and met “cool girls” who she envied not for their social nous but for having needed intravenous feeding.

Even after nine hospitalisations, when she somehow, remarkably, caught up with her education, made it to Oxford and began work as a fashion journalist, she was still in the throes of the disease.

It has taken her some three decades to “recover”, and yet as anecdotes about other anorexics show, she is one of the success stories.

Freeman’s story is, above all, utterly heart-breaking. You weep for her and so many other women (it remains mostly, though not exclusively, women) as she describes a constant hum of guilt that she should be burning calories, how small her world became, how her GP told her mother to prepare for the possibility she might die.

“Whatever joy I’d once felt had drained away, going from Oz’s colours to Kansas’s black and white.”

Her story is, sadly, far from unique, but Freeman applies journalistic rigour, making this not just a misery memoir but an examination of the causes and consequences of anorexia (short answer: it’s not the mother’s fault, nor is it because she “felt survivor’s guilt about the Holocaust” as she is at one point told), the way treatment has changed, the impact of social media, and the damage done by society’s expectation that girls and women fit a certain mould.

Interviewing clinicians and experts, she highlights important questions over the links between anorexia and autism, or anorexia and gender dysphoria as it presents in girls on the cusp of adolescence.

Freeman’s previous work, House of Glass, about her family’s experiences during the Holocaust, was a mesmerising read. This is no less compulsive, but it is frightening to realise how quickly she fell down a rabbit hole. It makes me thankful to have sons not daughters, and to have survived my teenage years unscathed.

The miracle is not only that she is not still clinging to life from a hospital bed — an existence she says she can picture “so clearly that it is like a shadow that follows me” — but what else she has managed to achieve. But then, that’s the point; anorexics are often high-performing, channelling their abilities into competitively not eating.

Towards the end, Freeman revisits one of the wards where she was a patient. That, like writing this book, can hardly have been easy.

Even as Freeman describes herself as recovered, it’s clear anorexia is not a chapter you can close.

Freedom, she says, “means not compensating for food I ate… so that my brain feels like a giant calculator totting up my sins” but then in the next paragraph, she adds “there is still something in my brain that tries to stop me eating”.

This is a vital contribution that it’s to be hoped will change how we understand anorexia, and perhaps also influence the messages we put across to young girls.

“Just because we praise girls for being good and little doesn’t mean they will only be loved if they are good and little,” she says. If only she’d realised that at 14.

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