Eating Disorder Sufferers Shouldn’t Have to Shock You

Eating Disorder Sufferers Shouldn’t Have to Shock You
For Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Georgina Bartlett discusses the link between misconceptions about the illness and its representation on screen.

This article discusses eating disorders. No specific numbers related to weight or other measurements are mentioned.

I first watched Skins during the summer of 2014. I remember because I was starving the whole time. Of all its cult characters, my instant favourite was a quirky creature of the suburbs. I loved her soft, deceptive grin, and I loved how she playfully, expertly tossed an apple between her hands and never took a bite. She was Cassie, a walking parody of Alice in Wonderland, who managed to look ethereal in last night’s outfit. In one memorable scene she sways atop a hill, dressed in white, glistening in the sunlight and shooting pills down her throat. In another she claims she hadn’t eaten for three days, and looked as golden and glowing and lovely as she always did. Cassie and her eating disorder made starving look like magic – a spell that could transform you into something else altogether.

After my sixteenth birthday, I resolved to transform too. I wanted to be prettier and happier (which I suspected were one and the same), and I wanted the distance from my problems which I assumed that would provide. Though relatability was a factor, Cassie’s whimsical stylisation was at the heart of her appeal, and with it the idea that being very thin meant leading an easier, more interesting life. In my head, I made a habit of claiming her iconic lines as my own – “it’s, like, nobody’s fucking business”, Cassie retorts to a critical Sid, after sneaking him a lesson in the art of not eating. I believed in that line wholeheartedly, resignedly, and would silently refer to it whenever I refused to take a bite.

If I confide in someone that I used to be scared of eating, their reaction is usually one of surprise. On several occasions, I have been told I “look completely fine now”. It’s the response I’ve learnt to expect, and it’s one founded by the fact I’m now an average weight. And while I realise the disbelief is never malicious, I am always angered by the logic behind it: that there is one specific way to look as someone struggling with, or having previously struggled with, an eating disorder. In reality, the illness takes many forms, can be linked with any number of a range of mental health problems and individual circumstances, and – crucially – they are not limited to one body type. The majority of eating disorder sufferers are, in fact, not underweight. But too often, popular understandings do not align with this reality. Too often, eating disorders are automatically connected with extreme thinness, revealing a misconception about how the illness works and manifests. It’s a misconception with serious consequences.

When you rebuild your relationship with food, you realise that physical recovery and mental recovery are two very different things. The latter is a fragile and changeable process, something which can’t be reduced to weight at any given moment – just like an eating disorder at any stage of its development. My own experience didn’t stop and start at particular numbers on the scale. At every point on the BMI chart, an inability to focus on anything but arbitrary measurements – half-pounds, the calorie content of toothpaste, how many grapes I’d eaten for lunch – meant the world shrunk along with me. Deep in tunnel vision, other pressures and problems began to dissolve out of view, and so did the parts of life I formerly enjoyed. The ever-declining goal weight, scribbled in the margins of textbooks and splayed across pages of my diary, always came before my passions or relationships. A fear of losing control and gaining weight was so overwhelming that the tiny, rigid world of rules and numbers I was left with felt safer and easier to manage at the time. Restriction was a method of controlling my body, but also my world, and accordingly it had a major impact on my everyday life.

Before I was underweight, my personality had already drained to a shadow. I counted having my school skirt’s waistline taken in as one of the best moments of my life and flushing secret stashes of my dinner down the toilet as my daily routine. Within half a year, I became what all the diet ads had promised: unrecognisable. No longer was I sociable, trustworthy or kind. Before I left for school in the morning, my mum would anxiously prepare sandwiches for my lunch, bursting with carefully selected fillings and wound purposefully in foil. I never thanked her, and threw them away once I turned the first corner. At house parties I ended up crying on bathroom floors, but not because I was drunk. Alcohol contained an inordinate number of calories, and no one else seemed to be ridden with stress over the real cost of drinking. When I was underweight, I was always cold and exhausted. I spent nights nestled against a radiator, trying to concentrate on my homework, reasoning that socialising equalled food and food equalled fat. Losing weight hadn’t fixed all my problems, I just didn’t have the energy to care about them anymore.

I still regret not seeking help sooner. Back then, I didn’t believe I could possibly have a problem unless I was very, very thin; rather ironically, the validity of my problem depended on the very same numbers that dominated my thoughts to an exhausting degree. I looked outwards. Did I resemble a ‘before recovery’ picture yet? Had I tried hard enough to hurt myself? Even the steady hair loss, the fainting spells, and the long absence of my period weren’t enough. Relentlessly competing with the images verified as examples of illness (the ‘face’ of eating disorders, if you like), weight loss once again appeared my solution. To even consider getting better, I had to get worse. Looking pretty, which by societal standards demands being thin, appeared to be the prerequisite for healing. Suddenly, the Skins take on eating disorders didn’t seem so romantic. It was very easy for me to conclude that I was right all along: beauty is sickness.

In the world of eating disorders, the body can act as mouthpiece for an incredibly confusing mindset. This is also true of its media portrayals. ’Before’ and ‘after’ images of weight loss convey internal distress quickly and to the point, while close-ups of protruding bones are striking and emotionally affecting. But much is lost between the before and after. What about those of us who haven’t yet transformed? What about those of us who never will, because that’s not how our disorder works? Bulimia is time and again reduced to a throwaway reference on screen, while OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder) and BED (Binge Eating Disorder) have very little attention altogether. It is anorexia at its most visual extreme, and its destructive effects on the body specifically, which define media coverage of eating disorders as a whole. The archetype is complete with a consistent focus on young, white, middle class women of the suburbs, to the detriment of the many sufferers who would benefit from representation.

Netflix’s popular drama To the Bone demonstrated how even the most well-informed filmmakers resort to shocking imagery. If you haven’t watched it already, you might remember the calorie-counting party trick that opens its trailer, or the close-ups of emaciation that follow. Though it is far more nuanced and moving than other films about eating disorders, To the Bone follows the tradition of training its eye on extreme thinness. The clue is in the title. Considering that star Lily Collins and director Marti Noxon themselves suffered from anorexia, it makes sense to portray the experience they know so intimately – and the physical symptoms are of course a part of that. But it’s worrying that Collins lost weight for the role of Ellen, its protagonist, even aside from the obvious dangers posed to her welfare. Was it really necessary? Like many others directly impacted by the way in which eating disorders are represented, I considered this the last straw. We shouldn’t have to shock you to be taken seriously. We shouldn’t have to fit the emaciated frame of reference to feel worthy of telling our stories. By confining eating disorders to the same stage of the same form over and over again, much ‘awareness raising’ fails to do just that for the majority of sufferers. As indicated by To the Bone’s supporting cast, they remain sidelined.

One show which thankfully challenges tradition is Skam, a Norwegian teen drama which attracted a sizeable fan base following its premiere in 2015. Like Cassie, the character Vilde loves fashion, makeup, and partying. More to the point, she emanates a loveable sweetness, which is soured by low self-esteem and a desperation to be “good enough” for the boy she likes. We catch glimpses of her private life that strongly infer this is interwoven with disordered eating habits, specifically restrictive and purging tendencies. She gets by on Diet Coke and gum. We overhear her coughing in a toilet cubicle. At lunch, she nudges salad around her plate, sorting her food into separate piles as she chatters to friends, distracting them, before reluctantly swallowing a slice of tomato. But her refusal to eat isn’t a masterful demonstration à la Cassie or Ellen, their disorders already proven by their bodies. In Skam, it’s not self-evident dark humour: it’s a silent warning sign that can all too easily slip by.

Viewers have praised Skam for its realistic depiction of teenagehood, and Vilde’s storyline moves me to agree. We first meet Cassie at a party, where her outlandish mannerisms and appearance suggest she’d just crash-landed from Planet Disorder. We first meet Vilde at a party, crying in the bathroom. The criteria of an eating disorder, according to the images that get the most screen time, is being extremely thin. But Vilde appears to be at a ‘healthy weight’, something which allows her to slip under the radar without much of a fuss, to carry on harming her body in private as long as it appears acceptable in public. It is only the character Noora, having tackled a troubled relationship with food herself, who seems to fully comprehend and address Vilde’s problem. She tells her firmly, “I see what you’re doing, and you have to stop”.  I would have echoed Vilde’s response at sixteen: that I was not thin enough or “pretty enough” to show myself kindness. Simply the recognition of Vilde’s problem left me with an unusual feeling of calm, the complete opposite of what I usually experience when watching this sort of storyline.

Whereas Skins idealised an eating disorder with aesthetic appeal, in turn idealising a specific body type, Skam validates it as a problem at any size. It’s important to note here that I’m aware Skins never pretended to be level with reality, and I wouldn’t expect one strand of its many storylines to stray towards a different pattern. And of course, bad things can have beauty (that’s what makes them all the more scary), but that doesn’t change anything below the surface. However, mixing the bad and the beautiful carries greater risk in different contexts, and herein lies the issue: considering that realistic, diverse portrayals of eating disorders are few and far between, I worry that audiences – often young and impressionable in the case of teen shows – aren’t always able to separate the reality of a problem from its narrow and often romanticised characterisation. So I do find it difficult to look back at Cassie, still a popular reference for eating disorders long after she was first introduced to our screens, and not throw the famous lines back in her face: “oh wow, but fuck you”.

It’s true that a filmmaker can’t simultaneously do justice to each and every individual experience. What they can aim to do, though, is reset the default and ditch the reliance on shock value. Representation which consistently centres on transformative weight loss is ultimately damaging and misleading. For those struggling with restrictive behaviour around food, it promotes the idea that they should wait to seek help. For those struggling with other ‘invisible’ symptoms, it may discourage them from seeking help full stop. With public education on eating disorders sorely lacking, dominant narratives in the mainstream have implications for what is and isn’t taken seriously by misinformed viewers. While Skam isn’t necessarily revolutionary (its archetype checklist still has lots of ticks), it at least tells a story which has long remained out of sight. By representing eating disorders through protagonists of different sizes, with different backgrounds and symptoms, media portrayals can reflect rather than condense the complicated nature of the illness.

As online spaces give voice to experiences outside the mainstream, I hope that the media will follow this trend. But our cultural ignorance around eating disorders is also informed by our obsession with weight loss, and that’s not so easy to change. The diet industry, and the culture it has entrenched, is an eating disorder’s biggest fan. Laced across all forms of media and our daily conversation, fuelled by corporations and influencers alike, diet culture normalises blatantly disordered behaviour around our bodies and our food to the point of celebrating them. It is a major reason why the warning signs of something more serious can be so difficult to spot. When asked for my weight loss secret at sixteen, “starving” didn’t seem the inspiring answer people were looking for. “Detox” or “clean eating” were the palatable, normalised excuses.

I have never felt more disgusted with the whole sprawling mess than last summer, when Kim Kardashian promoted appetite suppressant lollipops on her Instagram account. I spent the day in bed with a tight throat. The same product was plastered on a Times Square billboard, glazed with ‘you go girl’ quasi-feminist empowerment. It was almost parodic. It was also frightening. I thought about everyone struggling with restrictive habits who passed that sign. I know that it’s very easy to believe a problem isn’t really a problem when you can’t escape the echo of your disordered suspicions. It’s very easy to believe that self-destruction isn’t self-destruction until it’s achieved. Until then, as friends and family will likely assume, it’s probably just a diet.

If we want to encourage eating disorder sufferers to seek help sooner rather than later, then we can start by correcting misguided assumptions about the illness. The images we consume, from fiction to marketing materials, have real-life consequences. Question if they tell the whole story. Question what they’re choosing to ignore. A picture can tell a thousand words, but there are more than a thousand words to say. When I gained weight in my first steps towards recovery, people were quick to assume I was healthy again. I wasn’t healthy, I was healing. It has taken me years to eat market lunches with steady hands, undeserved meal deal breaks on the library steps, and post-night out McDonalds while I laugh with my friends. However, even now, sometimes I can’t shake the idea that I was never quite sick enough. Sometimes I question why on earth I’m still triggered by the likes of billboards or Instagram posts when I’m an average weight. It feels like retrospective imposter syndrome in my own body. But is it any wonder, really, when popular misconceptions do nothing to discourage that line of thinking? When we finally learn that our relationship with food can’t be measured by eye – that a mental illness is not entirely captured by physicality – then maybe real awareness will begin. I hope we won’t have to wait for much longer.

UK mental health charities Beat and Mind provide extensive online resources on eating disorders, including details on their many and varied symptoms.

Image Credits: Georgina Bartlett