Eating Disorders in Movies & TV Shows
The first time I was visually exposed to an eating disorder was when I started watching the famous British TV series - Skins. One of the main characters, Cassie Ainsworth, was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Her friends referred to her as ''the girl who never eats''. She was extremely thin and pretty.
Around the same time, I started watching Gossip Girl and my favorite character was Blair Waldorf. In the first season, it was briefly mentioned that she was struggling with bulimia nervosa. There was an episode during which she binged on the Thanksgiving pie after being upset. But that was all (I believe it was written off from script afterward because they almost never brought it up again). Blair was also beautiful and thin.
Fast forward many years, around the time that I was struggling with my eating disorder, the movie To The Bone came out. The main character was called Ellen and was portrayed by Lily Collins, who was naturally thin but still lost a significant amount of weight for the role. They also photoshopped her to make her look even more emaciated and gave her dark circles and body hair; which is a fairly accurate depiction of anorexia nervosa. But overall, she was also a beautiful and thin girl.
What do these three people who struggle with an eating disorder have in common?
They are all more attractive than the average girl. They are all very thin. They are all women. They are very much romanticized. Additionally, even though they struggle, they seem to have perfectly compartmentalized their disorder; they have the energy to study, work and socialize.
And these could not be further from the reality of eating disorders.
Because in reality, eating disorders come in different shapes and sizes. They are about the mindset you have, not your weight. Throughout the years I struggled with eating disorders, my body changed a lot but I never became emaciated. Besides my personal experience, the research has shown that anorexia nervosa is the least common eating disorder, with binge eating disorder assumed to be the most common. Binge eating disorder does not have any weight-related criteria. It is also widely known that people who have binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa can be at an average or a higher weight. None of the three characters - Cassie, Blair, or Ellen look or weigh average.
Moreover, eating disorders are not unique to women. Men struggle with eating disorders too. They also binge, purge and restrict. They, too, feel insecure about their body. Sometimes right in front of us: the gym rat who is too dedicated, the guy who loses 30 kgs in 2 months, and the other one who takes cheat days a little too seriously (To The Bone had a character who had anorexia, for which I am very grateful. But we still could use more relatable male lead characters who have different kinds of eating disorders).
There is undoubtedly nothing romantic to eating disorders either. You go through the trash to pick up leftover foods, hide to binge, and sometimes you smell like vomit. Most of the time, you are feeling so tired that you have zero energy to socialize. Cassie still had enough energy to attend all the parties. The same goes for Blair, she was studying, constantly throwing parties, and planning schemes with full energy. I guarantee that life does not simply go on separately from your eating disorder. You spend so much time thinking about nothing but food and calories, which leaves you with no energy to study, work or simply exist. Not to mention they ruin all of your relationships.
What I am trying to say is… The archetypical person with an eating disorder depicted in movies and TV shows is a woman who is extremely thin, pretty, melancholic, academically successful, and socially very active.
And for sure fictional!
But eating disorders are very much real. Such depiction may make you feel invalidated and lonely. You are not alone. Your experience is valid. Please get the help you need and deserve.
Excellent and important piece, thanks for sharing!
This is spot on! While I appreciate that the media tries to shed light on eating disorders, portraying them in this manner often does more harm than good, especially since eating disorders thrive on comparison.