How to Make Good TV About Eating Disorders, According to Survivors
In the wake of Netflix's "To the Bone" and the new BBC3 series "Overshadowed," women with EDs tell us how they want pop culture to portray their illness.
L to R: Lilly Collins in "To the Bone" and "Overshadowed." Photos courtesy of Gilles Mingasson/Netflix and BBC3
The first time I read about anorexia, it was in a memoir called Good Girls Do Swallow and it sent me straight to the chemist to steal laxatives. Every ED survivor remembers the first time she encountered her own illness in pop culture, and most of them were intensely triggered by it. For Natalia, 25, it was an anorexia storyline for the character Hannah in the British soap opera Hollyoaks. For Lily, 24, like me, it was a book that glamourized the illness and gave her tips on how to do it. For Sophie, 25, who has lived with binge eating disorder, it was a storyline about a 13-year-old boy who snuck food on the show Waterloo Road. (Their last names have been withheld by request to protect their privacy.)
The highly publicized Netflix movie To The Bone, starring an emaciated Lily Collins, was sold as the first film about anorexia. But there have been plenty of other portrayals of the illness in pop culture: the movies Thin, Perfect Body, and The Best Little Girl in the World, for a start. Then there's Cassie's storyline in the teen drama Skins, the Australian band Silverchair's ballad "Ana's Song" and the Lisa Loeb song "She's Falling Apart." Every time an eating disorder appears in pop culture, it treads a precarious line between demystifying an elusive, dangerous illness, and making it romantic or appealing.
And so, the question: Is it possible to make good pop culture about EDs? How important is it that we tell these stories, considering the risk of triggering vulnerable people?
There's a new show about anorexia out on BBC3 this week called Overshadowed. It's about a teenager called Imogene, an Irish girl who runs a YouTube channel. Over eight short episodes, we watch as she vanishes into an eating disorder. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this show is that it personifies anorexia: The illness is actually played by Eva O'Connor, who co-wrote the series. Casting anorexia as a separate person who taunts and controls Imogene is a clever way of making one of the most important points about an ED: it is a separate entity to the person affected by it. O'Connor lived with anorexia for eight years and believes that qualifies her to make responsible, moving television about EDs.
"There was never any danger of us glamourizing it or making it sexy or offending people because when you've been there yourself, you know how to do it," O'Connor tells me. "We were really careful about not giving tips on how to do it. We didn't make the main actress lose weight, we didn't mention weight, we didn't mention numbers or calories."
UK eating disorders organization Beat agrees that the show was created responsibly. A spokesperson said, "Overshadowed clearly presents the significant psychological distress felt by the main character and those around her in treatment, and describe the wider impact eating disorders have on the family circle. The film makes clear that anorexia and other eating disorders are serious mental illnesses, and not a choice or about dieting or vanity."
This is precisely what the ED survivors I spoke to want from a TV show: something that doesn't focus unduly on weight, something that proves that eating disorders are not about vanity. "I would want there to be more emphasis and attention on what life experiences often lead people to develop an eating disorder, rather than focusing on the eating disorder itself," Natalie says. "And much less focus on weight. I am very against the use of images of people with low body weights as I think they can be especially triggering and I don't agree with using them to represent the severity of someone's eating disorder."
Indeed, weight is just one metric by which to measure the severity of an eating disorder. Being underweight is not a pre-requisite for suffering; many people of average weight still live with the torment of an ED. "I think it would be nice for the creators to not fall into the trap of providing a very stereotypical view of what it is to have an eating disorder: an obsession with weight and food and a desire to be thin," says Emmy Brunner, CEO of the Recover Clinic and inventor of the Recover & Me app. "Eating disorders are far more complex than that. The relationship with food really acts as a metaphor for what someone is feeling… They are often consumed with self-loathing and wish to deny themselves any sort of nurturing and kindness."
This is a vital truth that binge eating diorder survivor Sophie would like to see addressed in pop culture: "I think talking about what causes people to have eating disorders is crucial—not only how diet culture and weight stigma is rife, but things like sexual assault, coping with trauma, low self-esteem, and gender issues. There are so many things that can push someone into developing a disordered relationship with food and those are the things we need to be challenging."
Sophie has serious doubts about the plausibility of making good TV about eating disorders – and she's frustrated that the only narrative we ever seem to get is about skinny white girls with anorexia. "In reality, for those already struggling with EDs or disordered eating or those prone to be triggered by it, you can't make the right shows about it. But I don't think that's always who these shows should be for. I think it's often a case of raising awareness of these issues with the wider public, who may not even know what an ED looks like or even believe it's a real thing; to make healthcare professionals more conscious of how they treat them; to help society and the government see the stuff we do every day that is making EDs worse—those are the people we really need to reach to show how awful these things are."
Lily, who survived anorexia as a teenager, agrees. "If you were going to make a really honest portrayal of what it's like to live with anorexia, it would be a really fucking boring film. When you have anorexia your life shrinks in the same way your body does—you won't go out for dinner with your friends, your focus on anything that isn't food and exercise slips away completely, your personality fades into nothingness because you don't have the energy to laugh or dance in the kitchen or be a real fucking human being. If you made a movie about what the years of my life with anorexia were like it would literally consist of my poor mother and I fighting six times a day, interspersed with me staring into space and putting on another jumper."
Watching someone willfully vanish from their own life isn't exactly riveting TV—and perhaps that's why so many creators of pop culture glamourize the disorder. EDs are agonizing, painfully dull, and harrowing in their precarious mundanity. Eating disorders are among the most fatal mental illnesses—20 percent of sufferers die prematurely because of their condition and certainly some of the least understood. Pop culture on the subject of eating disorders is rife with risk, but perhaps, if shows like Overshadowed is anything to go on, it is possible to do tactfully.