Protruding collar bones, dainty wrists, breakfast consisting of only black coffee and cigarettes. These are all common motifs in Sally Rooney’s two bestselling novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People.
Normal People is being adapted into a 12-part series for the BBC, due to hit screens sometime in 2020. It follows the two protagonists, Connell and Marianne, from the end of school throughout their time at Trinity College Dublin, chronicling their “will they, won’t they” on-off romance. There’s a small stock of recurring characters – the pair’s friends, their parents. There are other love interests for both along the way too.
“She hasn’t eaten breakfast or lunch today . . . her appetite is small this summer,” Rooney writes of Marianne. This isn’t a once-off description – it’s a common observation Rooney makes about her characters. The women protagonists in her books seem excessively thin, and often starving.
Is it a problem that these wildly popular and accessible novels seem to glorify unhealthy eating habits, and link desirability or beauty with the characters’ tiny frames? It certainly wouldn’t be a first for novels about young women.
Rooney seems to go further than most, with her characters’ thinness made more conspicuous by its absence in other characters. Some way through Normal People the other protagonist, Connell, finds himself with a new girlfriend. Helen is nice and uncomplicated. Her weight isn’t commented on.
An estimated 1,757 new cases of young people with serious eating disorders emerge every year across Ireland
In Conversations with Friends the protagonist Frances is similar to Marianne: both are waif-like and bony, we rarely see either eat, and both are smart too. Frances is a talented poet, who one day struggles to produce any poetry of worth after eating some toast. A few pages later she writes some of her best work; Rooney also notes that Frances hadn’t eaten properly in days.
Artistry and complexity
Across both novels thinness seems to be inherently linked with talent, artistry and complexity. Frances can only produce good work when she is starving. Connell’s boring girlfriend has no physicality worth describing. Marianne, the permanent object of Connell’s desire, is bird-like, dainty and delicate – both physically and emotionally.
This recurrent theme – that women who are thin are more interesting than those who are not, and that women who are thin are the only ones worth writing about – is potentially dangerous.
There is little value in dwelling on how it came to be so prevalent across both of Rooney’s novels. But we should think about its destructive force. An estimated 1,757 new cases of young people with serious eating disorders emerge every year across Ireland. A study recently found that the the prevalence of eating disorders has risen by around 4 per cent from 2000 to 2018. The HSE said in 2017 the number of teenage girls hospitalised for anorexia and bulimia has doubled.
We know that a factor in all this is the type of women the media glorifies through fame and attention, and the women who populate our magazine covers or TV screens, and the women – more recently – who dominate our Instagram feeds.
At a time when we decry the poor provisions of mental health services in Ireland, and balk at the horrifying statistics of rising hospitalisations for eating disorders, we also garland novels such as Normal People with praise and prestige.
Costa Novel Award
The book won the 2018 Costa Novel Award, the Novel of the Year Award at the Irish Book Awards, and was Waterstones’ Fiction Book of the Year 2018. The New York Times has called Rooney the “first great millennial author”. In May she won Book of the Year at the British Book Awards.
She has made her career writing about young people sensitively. Her references to thinness feels unconscious
This is not to say that literature creates these problems – of course it doesn’t. It is also not to say that all works of literature must deal with mental health in a productive way; nor is it to say that all novels have to be feminist, or engender healthy practices in their readers. Art can and should be transgressive.
But these ideas are not really transgressive. Reinforcing thinness as a virtue just echoes an orthodoxy that has been long associated with the increased prevalence of eating disorders. Rooney speaks the language of the so-called Woke Left. She is interested in political activism. And she has made her career writing about young people sensitively. Her frequent references to thinness feels unconscious. A writer who is so careful and precise in her descriptions of people and their relationships has, like us, a culturally produced blind spot.
It remains to be seen whether this element of Normal People will come to life in the screen adaptation. Either way, we should be sceptical of novels that propagate ideas most harmful to those supposed to find them most relatable.
But the cultural burden of divesting ourselves of these damaging ideas lies with everyone. At the end of the day, in reproducing this toxic fixation with thinness, Rooney is no villain – just a Normal Person.