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Author Cherie Bennett Tackles Teen Weight Worries Online
Sally Lodge -- 8/3/98
Kids respond to her latest novel in a fervent AOL discussion

In my school, I am the fat girl. It is so hard seeing these girls going on their first dates and having their first kisses and I can't even get a boy to look at me. Suicide thoughts run through my head all of the time: 'Maybe if I get rid of myself that will be one less eyesore for them.'""My anorexia got to the point where I weighed myself four times a day and if I was above 80 pounds I had to exercise more and more. I was depressed most of the time. The only joy I got was running to the scale to see if I lost any weight."
"I have always disliked my body, from size 8 (the largest I've been) to size 2 (the smallest I've been). Throughout my weight gain and loss I have felt insecure at every size. When I reached high school, I learned that I was going to be a no one unless I got a new body."

These are the candid voices of teenage girls, more than 300 of whom responded to an essay contest featured this spring on The Book Bag, an America Online site focusing on books for kids ages 12-16. The teens were asked how they have been affected by the pressure to be as thin as models portrayed in today's magazines, and were invited to list three ways that teen magazines could help girls deal with this issue.

The inspiration for the contest -- and the passionate online discussion it provoked -- was YA author Cherie Bennett's first hardcover, Life in the Fat Lane (Delacorte, March). The Book Bag ran an excerpt from the novel, which explores the complex issue of body image through the character of Lara, a 16-year-old beauty pageant veteran who, just after being crowned prom queen, begins gaining weight as a result of a (fictitious) metabolic disorder. As Lara's weight balloons to 218 pounds, the girl's self-esteem plummets, yet she eventually learns a lesson about accepting the unavoidable, establishing priorities and valuing genuine friendship.

Input from teenage girls provided the inspiration for Bennett to write this novel. She estimates that of the 10,000 letters she has received (and answered individually) from teen readers over the past six or seven years, body image was the second most frequently discussed subject -- surpassed only by the topic of love, sex and relationships. "I thought I was tuned into teens, but this really amazed me," she said. "I know that for those who are truly overweight, life is a living hell. The bias against fat people in America is our last acceptable prejudice. But for every letter I received from someone in that category, I received up to 20 from girls who wear a size 8, 10 or 12 who tell me that all their friends wear a size 2 or 4 and they feel like 'disgusting pigs.' They even say that they've 'tried an eating disorder,' making it sound as though it's the same as trying a diet. The sheer number of teenagers with this mentality is staggering."

Bennett, whose promotional efforts on behalf of Life in the Fat Lane have included media interviews and roundtable discussions with girls and their mothers, has been gratified to discover that adults have been reading her book along with their daughters. She describes as "mind-boggling" the extent to which parents are, in her words, "totally out of touch with how pervasive and obsessive teens' distortion of their body image is. I've heard so many mothers say that their daughters are concerned about what they eat, but they are `OK.' Many more girls than we think are definitely not OK. They are spending most of their psychic energy worrying about their weight. I realized I needed to address this through fiction in a manner that would encourage mothers and daughters to read together. I didn't want it to be cute. I wanted it to be real."

Kids Connect via E-Mail
Bennett was hardly surprised at the response to The Book Bag excerpt and contest, since for every online submission, she received five to 10 pieces of "snail mail" from readers of her book, and these letters ech d the e-mail messages. "Though the content of the Internet correspondence confirmed what I already knew," she said, "I was very moved that so very many girls opened up their hearts. The Book Bag provides a kind of ongoing national teen meeting that lets young women all over the country come together over a crucial issue like this. And it showed me how hungry girls are to tell their stories."
Carol Fitzgerald, executive producer and publisher of The Book Bag and three other book-related sites, finds material for her teen site by examining pop culture themes and current events that she can tie in to books. When she first read Life in the Fat Lane, she recalled, "I couldn't put it down, and I knew I wanted to do something with it online. Cherie Bennett relates so well to teens, and here she deals with issues, including divorce and self-image, that are often neglected in serious books for kids." Fitzgerald said she was extremely impressed by the thoughtful and sensible suggestions kids gave to magazine editors. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of respondents beseeched editors to run ads featuring normal-sized girls and women, rather than thin, often emaciated ones.

Other recent undertakings of The Book Bag have included an interactive novel that Bennett began and teens finished; a contest in which kids were asked to write a sequel to Lois Duncan's I Know What You Did Last Summer; and an invitation, as a tie-in to Armageddon, in which correspondents can share their thoughts on how they would spend their last day if they knew the world was to be destroyed. In addition, the site runs book reviews written by teenagers, as well as polls and teen-targeted trivia.

The bottom line, Fitzgerald said, is "to use pop culture and news to get kids to read books and to come up with interactive angles to involve them. It's wonderful that The Book Bag can call attention to a novel like Life in the Fat Lane, which obviously strikes a chord with teens. Clearly, they are focused on matters that are more serious these days. They're not just interested in fluff and froth."
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