A Shape of My Own: a memoir of anorexia and recovery by Grace Bowman

The best anorexic there could be
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A Shape of My Own is powerfully written, beautifully articulated and elegantly constructed. But it's a punishing journey for everyone - and that includes the reader. Grace Bowman rebukes herself, berates her doctors and runs her poor, bewildered parents ragged, sneering at their habit of sitting on the sofa on Friday nights eating "newspaper-wrapped fish and chips and mushy peas and cans of full-fat Pepsi". When her anorexia has its tightest grip, she even castigates them for trying to tempt her with low-fat rice cakes. "I don't like it that they know that I eat rice cakes. It was my secret. It's like I am giving the game away. I need to change tactics."

Grace despises those who conclude that "the anorexic is to blame, purposely seeking out attention through self-starving." But what are we to do? Her self-absorption is triple-layered, quilted and super soak-up strength. That said, Grace Bowman's egoism is gripping. To be sure that we get a really good look at her life, she adjusts the camera angles continually, darting from first person, third person, to the confessional, to the analytical, past tense, present tense, narrative prose and direct speech. When she briefly turns her life into a page from a script, she even includes stage and lighting directions. The reader gets to sit in virtually every seat in the auditorium.

Bowman's road to hell starts at the age of 18. She's a highly intelligent teenager about to leave home for university. But she decides that "I didn't feel right about impending adult changes in my life... I felt like things were shifting and moving and growing and I wasn't sure I was ready to grow with them." When Grace is officially diagnosed as anorexic, she admits that "secretly, there is a sense of pride and accomplishment. She now has a title: she is real and authentic. If she was an anorexic, then she was going to be the best anorexic there could be." When her parents find a place for her in a residential home for anorexics she is appalled to think that she might not be unique. "I didn't become ill to make friends with other people who were doing the same thing." Needless to say, she refuses to go.

Grace has to be the most stubborn, the most iron-willed, the most driven teenager I have ever encountered. When she sets her sights on being "the best anorexic ever" we can only conclude, with a sinking feeling, that she will be. But when her weight drops to below six stone, she is threatened with admission to a psychiatric unit. As suddenly as she decided to starve herself, she vows to eat just enough so that she can take up her place at Cambridge.

I wouldn't dream of giving this book to a teenager to read. Even Grace Bowman herself admits there's a real risk "that some of those still living inside anorexia, without clear perception, will read messages in my text. Strange as it may sound, it might lead them to try and imitate, even emulate, my behaviour..." I don't think it sounds strange at all. A Shape of My Own is too intoxicating to make it safe reading for the vulnerable. Bowman, who's now 29, is such a dynamic force that it would be easy to succumb to her will. She makes the seductive point that only anorexics are in charge of their destiny, while people who simply go on diets are not. The dieters are "conforming to other people's patterns, and obeying the most current world order". But the anorexic "does not want this direction from the outside. She wants control of her own game, thank you very much." Grace Bowman's world view makes a kind of demented sense, until you tear your eyes away from the torrent of prose and get a grip on yourself. Anorexics are powerful while dieters are victims? I don't think so.

While I wouldn't give this book to a teenager, it makes essential reading for everyone else. It's an erudite analysis of the sheer madness of eating disorders and examines many of the current theories as to why as many as one in 60 people in this country may suffer from them. The most convincing explanation in Grace Bowman's own case seems to be her overbearing desire to be perfect and "to be universally liked". Ironically, she emerges as stubborn, brilliant, vulnerable, talented and a superb writer. But likeable? Not really. In the context of a personal memoir, likeability is irrelevant anyway. It's readability that counts, and Grace Bowman needn't worry on that score. She has readability by the bucketful.