Feeling ‘Full’

Julia Spiro’s new novel tackles body image and bulimia.

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Julia Spiro’s thought-provoking new book, “Full: A Novel,” is an incisive exploration of what it can cost to maintain appearances on the outside, no matter the circumstances.

Spiro takes us on a deep dive into the world and psyche of Ava Maloney, a food and wellness influencer on social media with millions of followers. She got into the business in the hopes of being a positive role model for women as to how to live happy, healthy, robust lives. While she might want her followers to be full of self-compassion and acceptance, she is, in reality, the last one to play the part. Ava reflects, “My entire life is about creating content preaching self-love and acceptance, when really, I’m the one who needs to hear it, not the one who should be preaching it.”

Ava is in the grips of the deadly, self-loathing disease of bulimia. Unlike anorexia or compulsive overeating, this eating disorder is all about deceit … going to any length to keep the binging and purging secret while looking “normal” to the outside world. Her profession, in which she has to constantly craft herself into and then project perfection, directly parallels and feeds into the duplicity of bulimia.

“I’m fascinated by the intersection of body image and social media,” Spiro shares. “There’s this whole subculture of influencers now on Instagram and TikTok, who document everything they eat in a day and all their workout routines. It’s so toxic and, frankly, it’s all BS. Yet they have millions of followers. I wanted to explore why we’re so interested in this, and what’s behind the façade of perfection.”

Ava’s story takes her to the Island. She reluctantly ends up going to an exquisite, high-end, up-Island wellness center off North Road that specializes in helping clients develop a healthy relationship with their bodies. Spiro draws a vivid picture of the luxurious retreat and its clientele and staff, and for good measure, Ava meets a local guy whom Spiro uses to give us insight into how the other half lives. 

Spiro, who lives on the Island year-round, says about situating the story in the Vineyard, “I’m a big believer in writing what you know, which is why I set my books on the Island. There’s so much inspiration here. Everyone has a story, and it’s rarely what you think it is. Plus, the Island provides such a lush, escapist setting, which is important when covering a tough topic. I don’t want to read an entirely depressing book, let alone write one!”

The author establishes an unnerving tension from the beginning, with some anonymous stalker continually threatening to “out” Ava to her followers as she scrambles to present an unattainable, idealized self-portrait. At the same time, she is torn apart emotionally by her self-imposed need to carry out this deception. Just after advising a character, who wants to be an influencer herself, about how important it is to be authentic, Spiro writes as Ava is about to post yet another lie: “What’s worse is that I’m about to edit, alter, and manipulate the photos … I know it — I know it’s wrong. I do believe what I told her, or I want to anyway. But I’m not brave enough to be who I really am on social media.”

Asked why she decided to have Ava struggle with an eating disorder, Spiro says, “I knew I wanted to write about a young woman trying to overcome bulimia. But as a famous influencer, she feels that her recovery is not just about her, it’s about her followers, too. The stakes are higher for her because she feels like she has to be an example for others. This gave the book more drama.”

Spiro viscerally conveys what it feels like to be in the grips of an addiction, which Ava clearly has no control over. And even for those who don’t identify with having an uncomfortable relationship with their body, there are those who can empathize with Ava’s struggle with self-recrimination. For her, facing this becomes an essential move toward healing: “I’ve been blaming myself for failing, essentially, when really, I’ve just been struggling. I’ve been trying so hard to project an unflappable image of perfection and ease for so long that I’ve also been punishing myself any time I wasn’t close to that in reality.”

Spiro shares that while she recognizes that the book’s sensitive issues can strike a chord in readers, “I think that’s a good thing. If a book leaves you thinking, it’s done its job.”

What makes “Full” so gripping is how Spiro skillfully immerses us in Ava’s journey. And she succeeds mightily in her aim: “I’d like readers to walk away with a sense of hope after reading my book. Ava’s journey is full of mistakes, but she learns from them. I want readers to know that healing, change, and progress are all possible, even if the process is painful. I would know!”

“Full: A Novel” by Julia Spiro. Available April 1 online and at both Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books; $24.99.