Beth and her friends have no real need to diet, and it seems other issues in their lives are behind their desire to lose weight. Melanie and Jenny fall off the diet wagon real quick, but Rachel's home life is complicated by the fact that her divorced mother acts more like a teenager than she does, wearing skimpy outfits and bringing various men home all the time. While readers get to know a little about Rachel and practically nothing about Melanie and Jenny, Beth is the focus of the story. And Beth's eating problems appear connected to her father's decision to have an affair and leave Beth, her young brother, and her mother behind. The only thing that's certain in Beth's life is that she's falling for the boy across the street, Jeremy, who has been a close friend since they were children. But her problems with food and her excessive dieting threaten their budding romance.
She was ruining a beautiful night, one he had planned just for her. Why couldn't she just let her diet go for tonight? And why did it not quite feel like a diet anymore, but more of an obsession? It was true, she had never officially been on a diet, but her mom had done Weight Watchers, and her aunt was always on some sort of diet. They would be the first ones to put their diets on hold if there was a special occasion, or if they went out to dinner. The diet didn't control them.Dancing With Ana is a quick read -- only 170 pages -- but it really makes you think about the challenges of being a teenager in a society where so much emphasis is placed on being thin. The media focuses on celebrities with perfect bodies (not mentioning that they are airbrushed to within an inch of their existence), and there are so many commercials and programs focused on weight loss. I've struggled with weight issues all my life; I even tried to do the little-to-no-food-and-tons-of-exercise diet back in high school and lasted three days. I was weak, tired, and (it goes without saying) hungry. I've felt guilty after eating, and I've turned to food when I was stressed, upset, or even bored. It's a constant struggle, but it's about learning to be comfortable with who you are and not viewing food as a crutch.
She was definitely starting to feel controlled. Instantly, she straightened. If there was one thing Beth loved, it was her independence and the light feeling she usually carried with her that resulted from knowing who she was and what she wanted out of life. She didn't like the fact that food was somehow starting to hinder that part of her spirit. (page 54)
A friend of mine in high school struggled with anorexia (she lasted way more than my three days without food), which began with a comment from her father that she was "chubby." She would go out to eat with her family to the local pizza place and order a small cup of sauce while her father and brother ate slice after slice. She would leave my house the minute my mother started cooking dinner, and she would jog at least five miles a day. She lost tons of weight that summer, and I've since lost touch with her, but I pray that she's recovered.
Dancing With Ana takes place over just a few weeks, making it seem a bit rushed and leaving me scratching my head about Beth going from a healthy weight to rib-cage-showing-thin in just a matter of days. Though the pacing seemed a bit off and the characters less developed than they could be, Dancing With Ana is an engaging book. I don't know whether teenagers today identify with Beth, Rachel, Jenny, or Melanie, but various parts of the book took me right back to high school. I really liked the way Barker wrote the romance between Beth and Jeremy, with the clumsiness and innocence of new love.
I also commend Barker for pushing the character of Ana, or anorexia, to the forefront. This is a book that could be shared between a mother and daughter, generating a dialogue about healthy eating habits and maintaining a realistic and healthy body image. I plan on sharing it with my daughter when she's old enough, but in the meantime, I've already made it a point to tell her she's beautiful no matter how much she weighs and how weight shouldn't be foremost on her mind as long as she's healthy. I'm trying to have these conversations with her while she still values my opinion, and books like Dancing With Ana could prove useful.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of Dancing With Ana from the author for review purposes.