Etta is bisexual, and the Disco Dykes, her ex-clique, kicked her out for having a relationship with a boy. Despite the fact that she is newly single, they still refuse to give her the time of day, stooping so low as to go out with a guy. She’s also recovering from an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS); despite previously starving herself or throwing up what little she did eat, she weighed too much to be diagnosed as anorexic or bullemic. And because she’s curvy – not to mention the fact that she’s black – despite being an incredible dancer, her ballet coach told her she wasn’t right for ballet. Etta doesn’t really fit anywhere.
But when she’s encouraged to try out for Brentwood, a prestigious theatre academy in New York that could be Etta’s ticket out of Nebraska, she meets Bianca, a girl who is also in her recovery group. Bianca is everything Etta isn’t, but the two bond over Brentwood auditions and their shared experiences of eating disorders. Bianca is the one person who accepts Etta as she is, but Bianca is so very sick; can Etta really lean on someone who can only just hold herself up?
Not Otherwise Specified is one of the most powerful intersectional YA novels I have ever read. It’s a story that deals with body image, sexuality, bullying, going for your dreams, and, most of all, friendship. With most YA novels, the central relationship is a romantic one, but Moskowitz puts all the focus on the beautiful friendship between Etta and Bianca. Theirs is a really close relationship, despite Bianca being three years younger, at 14, and Bianca brings Etta into the fold with her brother James and their friend Mason. Finally people Etta can just be herself without judgement.
All four are technically competing against each other for the limited spots available at Brentwood, but they are so encouraging. Etta’s passion is ballet, and that’s what she knows, but there are so many other elements to the auditions – singing, acting – and Bianca helps and supports Etta as she tries out different areas of performance. Likewise, Etta is protective of and worries so much about Bianca’s health, as she is dangerously ill. She understands what her friend is going through, but worries that if she doesn’t eat, things could go very bad for Bianca very quickly.
But for Etta, the only reason she is now recovering from her own eating disorder is because she got herself the help. Not Otherwise Specified is an #ownvoices novel – a novel featuring a protagonist from a marginalised group written by an author from the same marginalised group – Moskowitz herself having suffered with an EDNOS, and she writes so honestly about Etta’s feelings not only towards her body, but to another area of her life where she doesn’t quite fit. Because of her weight, there were those, including her mother, who didn’t think Etta had a problem. Doesn’t matter that she was starving herself or binging and throwing it back up, because she wasn’t wasting away, some people failed to notice. Other people may not have seen it, but Etta knew she had a problem, and so she got herself the help she needed. It’s hard and it’s difficult for her, and she still struggles with food or with what people say about her eating or her weight, but she made the decision to try and get better, and I can’t help but be in complete awe of her.
And that’s just one example of Etta’s strength of character. Etta is proud of her sexuality; she has never hidden the fact that she is bisexual from anyone, including her former friends. They knew. And they were perfectly fine with that – until she got a boyfriend.
“This is hard enough as it is, and then you have to go and completely piss on everything we stand for. Did you miss the part where the heteros make our life shit? And now here you are slutting around with the first guy who’s nice to you, and what do you think that does besides make us all look like we’re just doing the lesbian thing for attention?”‘(p9)
Etta knows the problem is theirs, not hers. Despite missing them and wanting to hang out with them, she is firm in the belief that she has done nothing wrong by being in a relationship with a boy, and has no problem voicing that. But it’s not just that these girls shun her, they treat her atrociously. They actively bully their former friend for having the gall to have feelings for a boy. There’s violence and names and taunts, and it’s abhorrent. But Etta won’t apologise for being bisexual. She knows who she is. She is not a part-time lesbian, she’s not straight when it suits her.She is attracted to guys and girls, at the same time – she is bisexual. Bisexuality exists, and Etta owns it.
Not Otherwise Specified is a fantastic novel, with strong feminist themes, and Etta is a character to admire. She’s strong, she’s fierce, and she’s sassy. She has her faults, but she tries so damn hard to go after what she wants in life, will steadfastly defend her sexuality and her right to date whoever the hell she likes, and is constantly fighting against her eating disorder. Tackling sensitive subjects without getting too heavy and with the beautiful female friendship at its heart, Not Otherwise Specified is a must read.
Joanne Stapley is a writer and book blogger using the written word to discuss topics she feels passionate about: women’s issues, feminism, body image, self-confidence, and diverse YA. You can find Joanne at Jo’s Scribbles [http://joannescribbles.wordpress.com], her book blog Once Upon a Bookcase [http://www.onceuponabookcase.co.uk/], or on Twitter @Jo_Scribbles [http://twitter.com/Jo_Scribbles].