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How Popular Media Romanticizes and Stigmatizes Eating Disorders

Culture Stuff Writer: Prashamsa Rayamajhi

Content warning: this article discusses eating disorders in detail.

My first time seeing an eating disorder portrayed in “mainstream media” was when I watched Gossip Girl. I was a freshman in high school watching a show about a group of rich white teenagers, supposedly my age, teeming with privilege and extravagance that I would never have. It was the perfect show for me to escape my somewhat depressing life--why concern myself with my real problems and issues when I could consume myself with these fictional characters’ trivial issues? But that changed when, halfway through the first season, Blair Waldorf went on a binge episode, and subsequently purged everything she’d eaten. I vividly remember how angry I felt watching Blair make herself throw up on screen. As someone who was suffering with anorexia nervosa at the time, my anger only compounded when the episode ended with Blair agreeing that her “problem” had returned, and that she would call her doctor up again to fix everything. Her “problem”--bulimia--only ever appeared in one other episode throughout the entire show.

Gossip Girl is not, by any means, a groundbreaking piece of television, and it’s unfair to hold it to that standard. Plot consistency, healthy relationships and moral norms should not be expected from this show. While all this is true, the bulimia “plot piece” strikes as exceptionally abhorrent because the writers used bulimia nervosa to put Blair Waldorf at an even higher pedestal than she already had been. Blair was a conventionally attractive, rich white girl; the queen bee of her elite private high school with excellent grades, she had boys fawning at her feet and girls wanting to be her. She had her imperfections, sure, but they only made the viewers admire her more, and elevated her pedestal, making her more untouchable. The writers used bulimia nervosa as one of these “imperfections”, that was only mentioned twice throughout the entire show. Her secrecy around her bulimia (i.e. referring to it as her “problem”), and by extension her shame around her bulimia, was also an ornamental tool to iconize her character further. Blair’s bulimia, and her shame around it, never took over her life. She was able to do her school work fine, and she was able to socialize, and shop for clothes, and form romantic relationships, and bulimia did not, outside of those two episodes, influence her life in any way.

Again, holding a show like Gossip Girl, that is purely meant for entertainment, to a high standard is naive at best. Yet there is something extremely disturbing about using a serious mental illness that is debilitating to most afflicted by it as a plot piece, regardless of its entertainment value. And the main problem is, this is a wide-reaching phenomenon in modern day pop culture from films and television, to music, to books, to social media. All of these aspects of pop culture work together to perpetuate a culture where eating disorders are romanticized, and yet stigmatized simultaneously.

The romanticization of eating disorders can be seen in almost any media that cover this topic. However, there is an important qualification to be made: media only romanticizes (and covers) “aesthetically appealing” eating disorders, meaning that only eating disorders that appeal to a very specific aesthetic of thinness and self-harm are romanticized. This only includes anorexia and purging (making oneself throw up). The characters with these types of disorders are portrayed as anxious and flawed, but almost in an artistic, aesthetically pleasing manner.

Cassie from the British TV series Skins serves as the perfect example of this phenomenon. I have never watched Skins, and yet Cassie and her behaviors, words, and “aesthetic” were frequently on my phone when I was on Tumblr in high school. All I know about Cassie is summarized by this one line she said: “I didn’t eat for three days so I could be lovely”. Cassie serves as an “inspiration” to those who are struggling with food--an inspiration in the worst way possible, because her eating disorder is portrayed as desirable, as something that makes her even more beautiful. In fact, many call her a “pro-anorexia'' icon, because her character-type encourages those struggling with food to spiral even further into their disordered eating habits. Her eating disorder is just one of her many “quirks” that makes her interesting and unique, and many struggling with low self-esteem see her as a comfort character and as the blueprint on how to feel better about themselves. Portraying her crippling anorexia as something that made her more interesting, and by extension, more beautiful and desirable, is highly dangerous.

It’s also important to note that Cassie is thin and struggling with anorexia as opposed to any other eating disorder. She is pretty, she wears fashionable clothes, and she is the epitome of western feminine beauty standards (thin, white, blonde hair etc). All of these factors played a role in making her desirable, and romanticizing her eating disorder as something beautiful, something that many could use to make themselves more like her, and consequently, made them feel a step closer to being pretty, fashionable, and accepted by western femininity and beauty standards.

The stigmatization of eating disorders is more subtle, because it is the parts that we do not see as viewers. By excluding certain realities of having an eating disorder from the popular ED narrative, these realities are stigmatized. I have already mentioned some previously: Blair calling her bulimia the “problem”, showing Cassie as having anorexia and being thin, etc. There are also other aspects of eating disorders that are largely ignored in the media narrative. For example, only 6% of people with eating disorders are medically diagnosed as “underweight”--and people with larger bodies can (and often do) suffer from eating disorders. Yet there is virtually no representation of eating disorders among people with bigger bodies, or even in “healthy” bodies, subsequently creating stigma around people with larger bodies having eating disorders. Additionally, all representation of eating disorders revolves around the idea of western femininity (like Cassie), which excludes men, BIPOC women, and LGBTQ+ people, perpetuating the idea that only white teenage girls can have eating disorders--something that is institutionalized in the health care system.

Furthermore, no (realistic) aspect of treatment for eating disorders is represented in the media. For example in the show Red Band Society, which revolves around treatment for illnesses, has a highly unrealistic portrayal of ED treatment. Emma, who is hospitalized for anorexia, can eat alone without supervision, can get weighed without being forced to strip, and somehow doesn’t have to attend therapy. Treatment is not that easy; losing your ability to make decisions, losing your privacy (and dignity), even losing your bodily autonomy are synonymous with receiving ED treatment. There are lots of tears, lots of force-feeding yourself, lots of harrowing therapy sessions, and lots of moments where you are made to feel like a child. And yet, none of that is depicted in any major media production (To The Bone might have done that, but I wouldn’t know; I couldn’t watch it because it quickly became a pro-anorexia movie, and Lily Collins’ “safe weight loss” was far too triggering for me and others in recovery).

And that is if treatment is depicted in the eating disorder narrative at all, which it usually isn’t. Blair calls her doctor for her “problem” and yet she never actually goes to one, or even talks to one on screen. Cassie’s treatment is off screen as well. By excluding treatment from the ED narrative, pop culture stigmatizes treatment. Treatment and recovery are the most defining part of most people’s eating disorder story, because they are the most difficult and the most important. Eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates of any mental illnesses--treatment and recovery for many are literally a matter of life or death. Yet, by excluding what treatment is like from the narrative, it is stigmatized; most feel ashamed talking about doctor’s appointments and hospitalizations and Boost supplements and body dysmorphia because those without EDs don’t know these things are also a part of having an eating disorder.

Such flawed portrayals of EDs have real impact. I know they certainly impacted my eating disorder; regardless of how much I was suffering, I would never suffer in the same way that Cassie or Blair or Emma were suffering because I was a brown girl who would never reach the western feminine beauty standards these girls depicted. It only encouraged me to keep going, to keep trying to reach this unattainable level of “being sick”--because these characters were the only ones who had the same illness I did, and since I wasn’t like them at all, I needed to keep going, and maybe if I was sick enough I would finally be like them. I know this is a feeling that many of my friends from treatment struggled with too. It also encouraged me to suffer in silence, to be ashamed of the fact that I was getting help and being sick at all, because none of my friends would understand the truly crushing things I had done and felt and been through in my sickness and in my journey to get better.

Of course, I don’t speak for every single person who has ever struggled with an eating disorder. But therein lies the main problem: the media treats EDs as if they’re one illness suffered by a monolith (thin white teenage girls) when in fact the opposite is true. There are so many different types of eating disorders that so many different types of people suffer with, and portraying them as a singular only harms people that are suffering even more. This trend hasn’t improved since Skins or Gossip Girl from the 2000s; these are the same problems that To The Bone was criticized for in 2017. So when we talk about the next big “eating disorder” movie or show, we should ask ourselves: is this serving a specific aesthetic of what we already think eating disorders are like, or is this actually trying to talk about eating disorders, all aspects of eating disorders, without triggering those suffering from it? If the answer isn’t the latter, then it truly isn’t worth watching.


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