Stick Figure by Lori Gottlieb: Young Adult Diary of an Eating Disorder

Lori Gottlieb, Stick Figure. New York, Simon and Schuster, 2000.

"I only had one baseball, though, so I stuffed in one baseball and one softball, which made me look more retarded than sexy. I also looked retarded with the two softballs stuffed under my Tshirt because the rest of my body is pretty skinny. Which is weird, because my Barbie doll never looked that way with her huge boobs and skinny body....", writes Lori, an eleven-year-old girl in the throes of adolescence, who does not get much help from her parents on the subject of her quickly-changing world, as they misunderstand her above-average intelligence, and does not get along well with her classmates.
In Stick Figure, her novel about her experiences with anorexia, Lori includes the true story of her struggle with an eating disorder. In an effort to help the reader relate to her story she uses excerpts pulled from her actual diary, written when she was eleven, and published the novel nearly twenty years after she wrote it.
Lori grew up in Beverly Hills with both her parents and her older brother, where she lived quite a lonely life. Other girls in her grade were talking about makeup and shopping, and although she was more interested in chess and her schoolwork she began to be concerned about looking attractive to boys, saying things like "...I really wanted to look sexy for Samantha's party...", and soon her concern turned into an obsession with dieting, even though Lori never had a problem with being overweight. In Stick Figure Lori reveals that her mother is very controlling, whose major concerns included her own appearance and where to shop next. Her father, on the other hand, was a stockbroker and a man unskilled with showing emotions and talking about difficult topics. Although her parents were largely unconcerned with Lori, they did notice when she began to refuse to eat. Lori, who didn't see a problem with her dieting because it was similar to her mother's attitude about food, was hospitalized for eight months at the request of her parents and their family doctor because her body started to deteriorate. Although today Gottlieb is not suffering from any kind of eating disorder, her early diaries in Stick Figure reveal just how much she and her friends were vulnerable and self conscious about their looks, to the point where they would put their lives in jeopardy just to be a few pounds lighter. Gottlieb notes that today in The United States alone, about 50% of fourth grade girls diet because they think that they are too fat. This recent statistic and her diary in Stick Figure gives evidence to the fact that we have made very little progress in teaching the acceptance of one's own body, no matter what shape or size.
This is a very important book for the young adult genre, because worrying about weight and looks are a true part of life for almost every teenager. Both genders are under enormous pressure to conform to society and its expectations, and with role models like Barbie-mentioned in Stick Figure- it is impossible to ignore the high standard that society sets. This concern with looks is directly tied to the awakening adolescents have about sexuality, which is also mentioned in Stick Figure, about the girls trying to look sexy and feel sexy. In the book readers are shown the pervasive effects of parents who obsess over dieting, which can suggest to their children that being thinner is always better. In the novel we see examples of mothers who are obsessed with dieting so that they look good; Lori writes of the moms, "They're always eating salads before weddings and fancy occasions so they can fit into sexy dresses." Lori talks about the effect this has on the girls, writing things like "This year, though, Julie's mom started making us girls starve ourselves too, even though we don't have any sexy dresses to fit into". Sexuality is a driving force for this age group, as evidenced in the book by games like spin the bottle, and talking about who likes who.
Stick Figure is effective because it comes straight from the mind of an adolescent, and the time gap makes it even more so, as nothing has changed. Young adults still talk back, still question their parents and scrutinize their every move, and worry about their looks and how they fit in with their classmates. It shows these effects on the minds and how it can deteriorate a person mentally, and thus physically. It shows the dangers of the projected, expected image that the average person is "supposed" to conform to, and the recovery from this attitude and how a normal, self-confident life can be lived after such damaging self-examination. Another concern of adolescent life is control; in a time when the boundaries are being pushed, deciding what does and does not enter your mouth is a seductive form of control that can be exerted over parents, and no matter how bad the home life is, that at least is a known factor. It is a good example for girls in this age group of how simple issues can become very complicated and spin wildly out of control, but also how one can recover. Reading about it from the teen's viewpoint makes Stick Figure very real for the girls who would read it, and thus more believable.


Recommendations for Teachers
This book could be taught in conjunction with other books about peer pressure, such as The Chocolate War, and Just As Long As We're Together. Depending on the age group, it could also be compared to classics where fitting in with society is emphasized, such as Emma, or The Scarlet Letter, where a person who doesn't fit in is viciously ostracized.This book can also be team-taught with a teacher who is teaching another course, such as a course on nutrition and healthy eating habits or growing up and dealing with peer pressure. Teachers should realize that young girls are still facing these major issues on perfecting a certain image that the media presents. Teachers could use this book to also discuss the influence the media has on young adults, and use it as a tool if the students write their own diaries of issues they are facing as young adults today.
Teachers should be aware of the presence of some profane language and talk about certain body parts within this novel.. Although these things may prove to be an obstacles to teachers, these parts of the novel make it that much more believable and appealing to young adults. These portions within the novel, help the students relate to the girl in the story and will then be drawn into reading the rest of the novel.

About Lori Gottlieb

external image J16-lori_06-16-2008_427THAI.jpgLori Gottlieb grew up in Beverly Hills, California, she has written two other books in addition to her best-selling novel Stick Figure, and she is currently working on a fourth. She has written chapters for several anthologies, appeared in poetry readings and been featured several times on the radio, including commentating for NPR's All Things Considered. Stick Figure comes directly from her childhood diaries, and includes a raw vulnerability for students to relate to. Gottlieb did not plan on publishing her excerpts from the diary, but made the decision to when she stumbled across them while looking for her high school chemistry notes before going to medical school. When reading the diaries as an adult, she realized that the entries could help young girls who are struggling with eating disorders or other body image issues and decided to write a novel about her own personal experience with an eating disorder. (www.lorigottlieb.com)

Other books by Lori Gottileb:

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Lori's articles featured on NPR:
Turning Into Your Mother Isn't So Bad After AllGain Weight, Lose Perspective: When Sizes GrowCross Cultural (Mis)Understandings with the NeighborsSingle 40 yr Old Takes New Look At Marriage

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