Judi Liebowitz is 13 years old, stands 5 feet 4 and weighs 127 pounds. She is obsessed with being fat.
I am 38 years old. When I was 13, I was obsessed with being flat.
Adolescent girls have always had a tough time living with their bodies. The difference is, I couldn't do anything about my lack of, um, curves. Girls like Judi diet and fret and diet some more, and sometimes, like Judi, they develop an eating disorder.
Judi is the narrator of "Fat Chance" by Leslea Newman (G.P. Putnam's Sons, $15.95, 214 pages, ages 8-12). It is a good book, written in the first person and presented as the believable, unpretentious journal Judi keeps for her eighth-grade English class.
But it's more important than it is good: important for the girls who might see themselves in Judi's struggles and gather the courage to get help, and important for the parents who cannot fathom why their little girl would starve herself or stick her finger down her throat.
The statistics are stunning.
Fifty percent of fourth-grade girls diet because they think they are too fat, according to Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders Inc.
Forty percent of college-age females follow diets of 800 calories a day or less (the average intake for women in that age group should be 1,800 to 2,200 calories).
Fourteen percent of college-age females vomit at least once in a while to control weight, and 8 percent of them use laxatives once in a while to control weight.
And one-third of the women with eating disorders developed them between the ages of 11 and 15.
Judith Beth Liebowitz, 13, is much more than a stat. She is a bright girl with long, wavy brown hair and a clever sense of humor. Her father died in a car accident when she was a baby. Her mother is an assistant office manager who works hard and worries that she doesn't know her daughter anymore.
Judi looks in the mirror and sees a blimp. According to the chart in her Seventeen magazine, she's seven pounds over her ideal weight. She has a crush on Paul Weiss, but she's convinced he won't be interested in her unless she loses at least 10 pounds.
Judi's best friend, Monica, tries to tell her she looks fine. But Monica is thin, so how would she know? Judi's mother can't believe it when Judi calls herself fat.
"Don't be silly, Judi. You're just a growing girl," Mom said, even though I've told her a million times I hate it when she says that. "You're developing very nicely and you don't need to go on a diet. Dieting isn't healthy at your age. You'll stunt your growth."
vTC "Exactly!" I yelled. "That's the point, Mom. I'm too big already, and I'm only in eighth grade. I don't want to get any bigger."
Parents will identify with Judi's mom. They remember when curvy girls like Judi were the most popular in junior high. But now flat is where it's at. Take cheerleaders. It wasn't so long ago that the main prerequisite for making the squad was being able to fill out the sweater. Now they're all athletic gymnasts in a state of arrested prepubescence.
The thinnest, most popular girl in Judi's class is Nancy Pratt. Judi yearns to be like her. Then one day, in the girls' room after lunch, Judi learns Nancy's dieting secret -- she forces herself to vomit after eating.
At first Judi is repulsed. But soon she finds herself doing the same thing, and she falls into the cycle of bingeing and purging that is bulimia.
Then Nancy Pratt's eating disorder lands her in the hospital. Judi is scared, and a counselor who comes to speak to the students about anorexia and bulimia helps convince Judi that it's hard to recover without the help of others.
In the end, Judi does that, telling her mother and Monica about her bulimia. She gets to that point after reading back over her journal:
One thing I noticed is that when I started my diary I weighed 127 pounds, and now four months later, even after everything that's happened, I still weigh 127 pounds. Do you think that counts as an insight, Diary? And another thing I noticed is that the days I weighed 120 pounds, I didn't sound one bit happier than the days I weighed 129 1/2 . I still worried about my weight, I still didn't have a boyfriend, and I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
Judi isn't cured by the end of the book -- only half of all women suffering from eating disorders are cured, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa & Associated Disorders -- but you close the book believing she's going to make it.
For more information on recognizing and getting help for eating disorders, the therapy referral service number at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Baltimore is (410) 938-5000.
* Signing sighting: Tomorrow at 11 a.m. at Stepping Stones bookstore in Bel Air, illustrator E. B. Lewis will give a slide presentation on his work, and professional storyteller Vanetta Jordan will read Mr. Lewis' latest work, "Fire on the Mountain."