Mental Illness in YA: Eating Disorders

I’ve been thinking about books that feature protagonists who live with a mental illness or novels that talk about mental health a lot recently, and so I thought it would be a good idea to share some of my recommendations with all of you! This is going to be an ongoing series where I’ll pick a certain aspect of mental health representation and share some of your favourite reads with you.

I’m going to start this little series by bringing you my top recommendations for YA novels with eating disorder representation. As this post discusses books dealing with eating disorders and other mental illnesses, there are trigger warnings for ED and suicide, so please proceed with caution. While I personally connected to all of these books and felt as though they accurately represented what it’s like to live with an eating disorder, please be aware that everyone experiences mental illness differently and your opinion on their realistic nature may differ from mine.

So here are five of my top recommendations for anyone looking to add more YA novels with eating disorder representation to their TBRs!

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The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things is a book about a fat 15 year-old girl and her life with her so-called perfect family and inferiority complex. This is such a tough book to review for me, because there were so many things I loved about it, but there were also quite a few things I disliked. It was tough for me to get into at first and get to love Virginia, but once I understood her and how she acted I became less judgemental of her choices. While Virginia was hilarious and I loved her voice, I hated her negative self-talk—which I know is a very real thing for a lot of people who struggle with negative body image. And that pretty much sums up The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things—it’s simultaneously confronting and incredibly real.

Reading about Virginia slipping into having an eating disorder was definitely difficult to read, as are the majority of the books I’ve read that have protagonists who live with eating disorders. There are also scenes and mentions of self-harm, so be cautious is you decide to pick this book up. But even though it was a confronting read at times, Virginia’s humour kept it from turning into the dark book it might have been otherwise.

My favourite thing about this book was undoubtedly how realistic it was. Virginia was such a staple teen girl, and even though she wasn’t the most unique person I’ve ever read about, it was her genuine nature that will make this book one that I remember. She have a thing with a guy, talks about her fears and how she thinks she has to act to be accepted, and it was great to see her thoughts shift throughout the narrative. She grew into such a confident, unstoppable young woman who’s happy with herself and won’t take crap from anyone, and I just loved that. Despite disliking Virginia at first and feeling as though the ending was a little rushed, I did really enjoy this novel on the whole.


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Tiny Pretty Things

I’m still talking about this book about two years since I’ve read it, and I think that goes to show just how much of an unforgettable novel it really is. Tiny Pretty Things is the first book in the duology about group of characters who will do anything to be the prima at their elite ballet school in Manhattan. It’s dark and full of backstabbing, and it’s just delightful.

But Tiny Pretty Things is as much about the pressure these ballerinas put on themselves as their families and their dance school also place on them. A few of the characters are living with eating disorders as a result of all the pressure and their desire to ‘be perfect’ and win the prima position, and their struggles were hard to read about at time. This is such a brutally honest book about the backstabbing nature of competitive fields, and it’s such an incredible read.


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Not Otherwise Specified

Not Otherwise Specified is a book about a teen girl named Etta, who doesn’t seem to fit into the labels that everyone in her small town are intent on pushing on people. She’s a bisexual WOC who’s living with an eating disorder, and I absolutely loved getting to know her in Not Otherwise Specified. Etta is in eating disorder recovery and is mending her relationship with food and gaining weight back as a result, while still struggling. Her recovery process could not have felt more realistic, and it meant that Not Otherwise Specified was just everything that I wanted it to be and more.

Everything about this novel felt so honest, and I loved the messy, realistic way it was written to reflect Etta’s self. The only thing I disliked about this novel was the hatred between bisexual and lesbian women, so if that makes you uncomfortable, that’s another thing I’d consider before picking up this novel. But ultimately, I adored Not Otherwise Specified and it was so refreshing to see a bisexual WOC protagonist living with an eating disorder instead of the allocishet white girls we see most of our YA eating disorder representation in.


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Paperweight

Paperweight was one of the first books I ever read with eating disorder representation, and although it’s been three years since I’ve read it, it’s still one of the first novels that come to mind when thinking about mental health representation. Paperweight is a queer 17 year-old girl named Stevie who’s been sent to an eating disorder treatment centre on the outskirts of the New Mexico desert. And wow, this was a tough read. Stevie is also suicidal, which was incredibly difficult to read about and not just reach into the book and hug her. This book tore my heart to shreds, and I thanked it for it.

Paperweight also raises a lot of difficult questions about the difference between anorexia and bulimia, and how Stevie’s label meant so much to her and how so much of her self-esteem was rooted in it. It was heartbreaking to see how her illness was caused by her need to control, but that in itself gave us such an honest portrayal into the life of someone living with an eating disorder. It was also really great to see a queer protagonist in a book where her sexuality wasn’t the main focus. Paperweight is a must-read for anyone looking for more representation of mental illness in YA on their shelves.


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Nothing Tastes as Good

Nothing Tastes as Good is another extremely confronting read, and one that does come off as fatphobic at times, but I do think it ends up having some really powerful messages about eating disorders and body positivity by the end. This is a book about a girl who is a ‘ghostly helper’ of sorts, Annabel, who’s assigned to a fat girl named Julia who was in Annabel’s class before Annabel’s death by eating disorder. This was such a challenging read because of all the warped through processes Annabel had and her tough relationship with food, even when she was no longer physically there, but it was such a powerful, heart-wrenching read.

What I loved most about Nothing Tastes as Good is that it shows how harmful vilifying food is and the importance of putting your body first. Listen to your body and its needs. Seek help if you’re struggling by reaching out to people close to you or a professional that is able to give you advice. It can feel so isolating to have a mental illness, especially an eating disorder, but my main take from this book was that you’re not alone, no matter how dark things may seem. Nothing Tastes as Good is a dark and confronting read at times, but that glimmer of light that shines through at the end makes it completely worth the heartache.

Let's Talk

Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned? What are some other examples of good representation of eating disorders in YA? What are some of your favourite novels featuring mentally ill characters? Let’s chat!

Thanks to Bloomsbury Australia for providing me with a copy of The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things in exchange for an honest review!

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14 thoughts on “Mental Illness in YA: Eating Disorders

  1. I’ve been a bit hesitant to start The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things because I feel so uncomfortable reading negative self-talk. It’s one of the reasons why I disliked Eleanor & Park. Your review is making me a little more interested now despite all that though 🙂 great post Sarah ❤

  2. I read The List by Siobhan Vivian and there’s a perfectly written side character (sister of a MC) battling anorexia, I found it very relatable. It’s a wonderful read I def rec it.

  3. I love The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things!! I just finished it – did you know it’s a rewritten version? The author modernised and republished it -which I thought was a pretty cool thing to do.
    Great post by the way – Eating Disorders in YA are a topic I find super interesting and super important!! Thanks for the suggestions 😊

  4. I needed this post because I’ve been meaning to pick up more books that discuss eating disorders. It’s such a fascinating topic to read about as it’s such a spectrum.
    This is such a wonderful post (like all of you posts) xx

  5. The book paperweight sounds like one I should check up – the others seem too triggering at the moment.
    There are a number of books I read, one I began ‘turtles all the way down’ I stopped as it was triggering. One I loved was Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella – because it was real and wasn’t too triggering.

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