Friday, September 16, 2016

Book Review: Jessi and the Awful Secret

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Jessi and the Awful Secret (Baby-Sitters Club #61)

Author: Ann M. Martin

Date: 1993

Publisher: Apple Scholastic

ISBN: 0-590-45663-6

Length: 139 pages

Quote: “The kids seemed so high-spirited and happy that I hadn’t thought of them as ‘underprivileged.’ Now something in the parents’ faces reminded me of that.”

When Madame Noelle decides her middle school ballet dancers need teaching experience, and assigns them to guide a few “underprivileged” younger children through a less formal dance class, Jessi notices that one of her classmates is anorexic. The girl’s parents, as well as Madame Noelle, have already noticed this before Jessi pushes herself to talk to Madame Noelle about it. Because this is a Baby-Sitters Club story, Jessi supplies just the extra push her classmate needs to start seeing a doctor and a psychiatrist.

There was a heavily publicized “epidemic” of anorexia during the early 1980s, when quite a few girls realized they could only ever look like victims of the fashions inspired by scraggy Princess Diana and scrawny Nancy Reagan, and imagined that a strict low-calorie diet would give a normal-shaped female that hatchet-faced skeletal look that would not look fat in pleated trousers and square-cut skirts. This was also the period when smarter girls stopped following the fashions and adopted styles that work better for more of us, as modelled by Barbara Bush and Sarah Ferguson. Nevertheless, insane crash-diet routines became a fad.

This was also the period when we were told that nobody ever just realized that crash-diet routines, where a girl starved herself down to the target weight or measurement and then immediately gained a few more pounds during the week when she started eating normally, were not going to give most of us the Diana Look. Genes are genes, jeans are jeans, and the only way to stop looking fat in early 1980s pleated-top, tapered-leg jeans was to resume wearing straight-cut jeans and consign the fashion police to everybody’s favorite tour destination in Michigan. However, this aspect of reality was consistently denied by the commercial media, who harped for years on the theme that anyone who had “got anorexia” was going to starve to death unless people bullied her or him to “get help.”

What really turned me off the writer Leslea Newman was not the memorably misleading Heather Has Two Mommies, which urged little children to deny the reality that if most of their friends “had two Mommies” the other one was an aunt or grandmother. It was an even more shallow and false novel, deservingly out of print and I don’t intend to link to it, in which a psychotherapist told a teenager with bulimia and anorexia, “I’ve never known anyone who got better all by herself.” Bosh. I had, when this wretched book was printed, known half a dozen. In fact I’d experimented with fasting and self-induced vomiting as weight control techniques, myself, and found that they didn’t work nearly as well as exercise did; I’ve remained top-heavy, not obese, and comfortable with my body shape ever since. And I’d never “talked to” anybody about it—not even the friends and relatives who’d talked about their experiments with me, from whom it was possible to learn that, the harder a girl recalled having dieted as a teenager, the fatter she was as an adult. (In fact, in 1982 I distinctly remember reading a Young Adult Novel where a coach told a young gymnast about self-induced vomiting for weight control, as still occasionally happened in real life--I've never seen another copy of that book, since, and wouldn't link to it if it were still available, but it existed.)

So I would have liked this BSC story better if Martin had faced up to what plenty of women had “come out” about by 1993. For one thing, if Jessi’s friend Mary had become anorexic because the fad for extreme dieting had survived in ballet school circles (which is possible), and only because of that, the realistic happy ending would have had her realizing that crash diets don’t work, in the same normal, casual, not-even-something-we-wanted-to-discuss-with-our-best-friends sort of way that thousands of girls and women did.

For another thing, by 1993 medical science was identifying a physical factor that contributed to the extreme cases of anorexia, which had required long-term medical care. If Mary had really needed help to quit crash-dieting, she would have been one of the children who had drunk “Vitamin D-3 enriched” milk by the quart, growing up; apparently excessive Vitamin D in the system may produce a primarily physical disgust with food, which sometimes made people (boys as well as girls, in or out of show business) persist in self-starvation and bulimia long after they’d lost more weight than anyone could possibly want to lose. In 1983 nobody had noticed this yet, but by 1993 doctors had.

But no. Jessi and the Awful Secret is just another story where, whether the anorexic character needs nutritional guidance or not, she has to be run through the psychotherapy process. Meanwhile Jessi and her ballet buddies spend a lot of time blathering about to what extent Balanchine’s unrealistic ideal of all ballet dancers looking just alike to the audience is likely to sabotage this one’s and that one’s “careers.”

I’d tell children reading this book that ballet is not, if it ever was, a “career.” It’s an interesting discipline to practice, but…nobody’s going to earn a living just dancing any more, if anybody ever did. Yes, there was Isadora Duncan. Was, back when “The Dance” had a degree of snob appeal it no longer has. And if you read her memoir you realize that one reason why “The Dance” lost its snob appeal was that the only way even the recognized queen of the art could make a “career” out of it was by depending on a succession of male admirers for money. Ballet is a delightful course of study that builds strength, grace, and discipline, but even if you have the body shape Balanchine favored, ballet is not going to be your career.

Anyway, Jessi and the Awful Secret is a Fair Trade Book, meaning that when you send $5 per book plus $5 per package to either address at the very bottom of the screen (add $1 per online payment, or pay the U.S. Post Office fee per offline payment), we send $1 per book sold to Martin or a charity of her choice. If you ordered eight BSC books, you'd send us $45 via postal order or $46 via Paypal, and we'd send Martin or her charity $8. You could also include books by other authors in the same package, whether you find reviews of them at this web site or not; while books are new we prefer to buy them new, since the purpose of this web site is to encourage living writers.