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Content warning: this article contains discussion of disordered eating
Over the past decade, mental health awareness has finally earned its place in the public eye. Celebrities and influencers are talking openly about their personal experiences with mental health, and nuanced, sensitive portrayals of mental health issues have begun to appear in mainstream media. These conversations have started the long process of destigmatizing mental illness and promoting wellness.
However, some of these narratives still leave room for improvement, and one of the most blatantly misrepresented conditions is eating disorders. Although portrayals of other mental health conditions have grown widely in the past few years, portrayals of eating disorders remain incomprehensive, inaccurate and problematic.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists five main types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) and other specified feeding and eating disorder (OSFED). However, fictional portrayals disproportionately feature anorexia and bulimia. Since the other three types are almost never shown in mainstream media, many people do not even know that these disorders exist.
Secondly, almost all fictional characters with eating disorders are young women. While eating disorders are more commonly diagnosed in women than men, the National Eating Disorders Association estimates that 1 in 3 people with eating disorders are men, and men are less likely to seek treatment for eating disorders due to social stigmas.
These fictional women are usually driven by a pathological desire for beauty and thinness. While the beauty standards of the 1990s and 2000s promoted a thinness that was unattainable for most women and exacerbated society’s toxic diet culture, people can develop eating disorders for a variety of reasons – many of which do not involve a desire to lose weight. For many, disordered eating is a maladaptive coping mechanism for stress or trauma. Feeling comfortable and confident in our bodies is a completely valid struggle, especially in a society where beauty standards are constantly changing and often unrealistic, but most portrayals reduce the complex motives behind disordered eating to vanity and insecurity, excluding people who don’t fit this narrow definition.
These widespread misconceptions enable a chain reaction of problematic attitudes that negatively impact people with eating disorders. Since almost all characters with eating disorders are women, the media has framed it as a “woman problem,” and social perceptions of people with eating disorders are riddled with misogyny. Many films and TV shows glamorize eating disorders while simultaneously criticizing people who struggle with them, all disguised as a helpful critique of diet culture. For example, Regina George in Mean Girls exhibits constant anxiety over everything she eats because she is obsessed with achieving perfection, but the film uses this behavior to reinforce that she is vain, superficial and self-absorbed compared to the protagonist Cady, who is framed as sympathetic because she does not exhibit overt signs of an eating disorder. The film attempts to show that eating disorders are self-destructive, but at the same time, attaching these behaviors to a wealthy, conventionally attractive white woman like Regina inadvertently suggests that eating disorders are just a necessary evil of glamorous living rather than a mental health issue that affects millions of people with diverse experiences and backgrounds. Thanks to the media, beautiful women have become the face of eating disorders, creating a dangerous allure around mental illness.
Furthermore, in a society that expects women to conform to beauty standards yet perceives them as shallow and unintelligent if they care about their appearances, having a condition that is falsely associated with vanity creates a heavy stigma for women trying to build successful careers while struggling with eating disorders. Since eating disorders are viewed as a feminine problem, they are largely stigmatized in the workforce along with menstruation, menopause, pregnancy and other issues that predominantly affect women. These attitudes make many women more hesitant to seek treatment for their eating disorders, discouraging them from seeking potentially life-saving care.
While eating disorders in pop culture are still widely misrepresented, a few great representations are gradually creeping into mainstream media. Most notably, Alice Oseman’s graphic novel series Heartstopper and the subsequent Netflix adaptation feature a young male protagonist who suffers from anorexia as a result of trauma and anxiety. Nuanced, sensitive portrayals like this are essential to creating a space where people with eating disorders feel safe enough to seek help rather than feel judged and ostracized. We need to dismantle decades of harmful attitudes and promote judgment-free treatment, management and recovery.