In the first episode of the dark comedy about a housewife who launches an aerobics empire in the 1980s, Sheila (Rose Byrne) orders a large meal at a fast-food restaurant. Then she goes to a motel, strips off her clothes, binge-eats the food and vomits.
It’s one among several such scenes in “Physical” (which released its season finale Aug. 6), and it’s not alone among recent series featuring graphic portrayals of these illnesses.
Season 4 of Netflix’s “The Crown” included Princess Diana’s (Emma Corrin) bulimia. The most recent seasons of Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” (now streaming) and Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” (Wednesdays, 8 EDT/PDT) include characters and cast members who discussed their anorexia onscreen.
In popular culture, eating disorders have often been portrayed irresponsibly, relying on stereotypes, offering inadvertent “how-to” guides and sometimes glorifying dangerous behaviors. Emily Blunt’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) proudly declares her “diet” involves not eating until she is about to faint, and then only a single piece of cheese.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), about 30 million Americans will experience anorexia nervosa, bulimia, binge or other eating disorders at some point in their lives.
And in the 15 years since “Prada,” as other shows and movies such as “Glee,” “Gossip Girl,” “Mean Girls” and “Popular” have featured storylines about eating disorders, awareness and understanding of them has increased. But does this new wave represent a step forward in portraying a complicated illness, or are we regressing into exploitation?
Mostly, TV creators are heading in a good direction when they write stories about eating disorders, experts say. But those same experts are still worried anytime a character exhibits these behaviors onscreen.
When she sees an eating disorder depicted in a TV show or film, counselor Jillian Hartman of New York’s Renfrew Center says: “My initial reaction is usually frustration and anxiety. I am anxious that the character may show an inaccurate portrayal of what it is like to live with an eating disorder, and the potential negative impact it can have on the audience.”
In “Physical” and “The Crown,” the characters’ experiences with bulimia were pulled from real life, and both series include viewer discretion warnings and resources for those struggling with eating disorders in relevant episodes.
“The illness is really good at making you adept at hiding it from the world,” creator Annie Weisman, who based Sheila’s struggle on her own, told USA TODAY in June. “There was such a distance between what people thought about me and what I felt about myself and what was happening inside. So we really try to focus in this show, not just on how she evolves physically, but in how she starts to (own her feelings) and tap into that voice.”
Corrin told USA TODAY last year that she lobbied to “flesh out” the scenes exploring the eating disorder, but she understood the responsibility of portraying a mental illness.
“I think that for anyone who’s experienced it, it is always a good thing to see (it) be represented on screen. At the same time, I know it’s very triggering to see, and I know that you have to be careful.”
For some experts, the scenes in these shows went too far in their vivid depiction of bingeing and purging.
“Many people found these scenes to be distressing and to be too graphic, sometimes to the point of exaggerating and sensationalizing Princess Diana’s and Sheila’s eating disorder,” says Chelsea Kronengold, program manager at the National Eating Disorders Association. “While the eating disorders scenes may be an accurate representation of some people’s experiences, these graphic portrayals were not particularly sensitive to people who may be triggered by this type of content.”
However, “nothing is all good or all bad, and both shows were successful at conveying how eating disorders thrive in isolation,” she says.
Other experts also praised both shows for their portrayal of the illness and its effects on emotional and mental health.
“The Crown” “did a great job of highlighting the emotional struggles Princess Diana faced that contributed to her eating disorder,” Hartman says. “It was clear to the viewer that she wanted to be loved, seen, respected and cared for but was unable to have this in her marriage.”
“What ‘Physical’ did a nice job of portraying (Sheila’s) inner battle, her negative self talk and how her brain was kind of hijacked” by it, says Dr. Elizabeth Easton, national director of psychotherapy at the Eating Recovery Center. “If they’re (just) talking about weight and calorie numbers, body size and clothing sizes, they’re missing the point. … The mental illness itself is so devastating because of the battle that they’re in with themselves.”
Adds Hartman: “Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health illness. … For this reason, the emotional component needs to be emphasized.”
Season 2 of “Never Have I Ever” has also received praise for raising awareness that the illness doesn’t just affect ultra-thin white women. Muslim-American teen Aneesa (Megan Suri) reveals she suffers from a disorder in a midseason episode.
Easton praises the show for focusing on the stigma faced by people suffering with eating disorders. “They also did a nice job not showing the behavior and using a normal-weighted actress of color. This is not just a skinny white girl disease. This is a disease that affects all genders, all races, all cultures.”
And Aneesa’s story has had a distinct impact on viewers. “Ever since ‘Never Have I Ever’ incorporated an eating disorder storyline, the NEDA help line has heard from many contacts, including international folks, that they are reaching out because of the show,” Kronengold says. “The more eating disorders are responsibly discussed in mainstream media, the less taboo these illnesses become.”
These series have come a long way from some of their forebears, but there is still room for improvement in how popular culture discusses eating disorders.
Easton hopes shows will include another important aspect: That “recovery is possible. A lot of shows don’t depict that people can recover and move on with their lives.”
Contributing: Patrick Ryan
If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, the National Eating Disorders Association’s toll-free and confidential helpline is available by phone or text at 1-800-931-2237 or by click-to-chat message at nationaleatingdisorders.org/helpline. For 24/7 crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741-741.
Source: USA Today, August 2021