A scene from the upcoming Netflix film To the Bone
I remember the first time I saw an eating disorder portrayed on television. I was 12 years old watching a re-run of 7th Heaven and one of Lucys friends excused herself to use the bathroom after meals. The plot of the show included the discovery that in reality this friend was only changing her retainer, but we should be mindful not to make accusations, and also to provide support.
Then it happened again on Gossip Girl. Blair, one of the shows main characters, experiences binge/purge episodes in relation to feeling alone and rejected by her father and overwhelmed by the world around her. While a few of the episodes referenced this issue and needing to get help, it never became more than a background narrative, dropped when juicier plotlines and romances came along.
Next it was Pretty Little Liars, when Hannahs character was taught how to get rid of food by the shows main frenemy and woman of mystery, Ali D. Although Hannah was confronted with urges to use this behavior, we as viewers watched her resist, though jokes about her weight and references to her jealousy of other peoples slim figures continued throughout the many seasons.
I had hope when Red Band Society came out. It featured teenagers in a hospital, including a young woman diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. But we barely saw the inner workings of the disorder. Rather, we saw the behaviors and saw an unrealistic medical staff leave food alone with the patient and feign incredulity when she was losing weight or didnt finish a meal.
It seems that there is a three-fold conversation that takes place around featuring eating disorders in film/television/media.
One: Its never done right. We watch characters like those mentioned above go through the motions of the behaviors, at times mentioning the feelings beneath them, but the true extent of an eating disorder is ignored or botched. We watch characters seemingly forget their eating disorders on shows like Glee, laying to rest the storyline after a few episodes. Perhaps this is an attempt to show that those with eating disorders have other things going on in their lives, that this is not their sole identity.
Sure. And yet, as a woman who is recovered and is now an eating disorder therapist I can safely say that this is delicate and complex; an individual in recovery is most likely working extremely hard to fully participate in life beyond the eating disorder feelings, thoughts and behaviors. But this is far from simple and takes dedication and time. Lots of time. So to cut out the notion of the eating disorder after a few episodes is belittling the journey and the extent to which this grips hold on someones life.
Two: Even when eating disorders are portrayed fairly accurately, such as on the British television show Skins, the characters can be triggering for those struggling with disordered eating or full-fledged eating disorders. It may bring out ideas or notions in those in a susceptible and sensitive place. Even my writing this article could be considered by some to be paying mind to eating disorders and therefore be dangerous. This is the second stance when eating disorders are portrayed: Its too risky for the millions already struggling.
Three: There are those who are calling for more action and understanding. As a woman who identifies herself as an activist I can safely say that I fall under this category. I want to see more in the media depicting the truth about eating disorders and I want it to be done in a safe way where those who perhaps are in the midst of an eating disorder are given a helpful trigger warning, yet the depiction does not include details that might act as a lesson for those not committed to recovery and looking for ways to perpetuate their eating disorder struggles.
Eating disorders are real and they are dangerous and they are common. We can ignore this, we can watch as it gets botched by those with good intentionsfeaturing lines like I just want to be in controlbut not see the other side, how this disorder, this illness, permeates thoughts, feelings, willingness, relationshipsand above all, ones ability to participate in life. To feel and love and take risks. I do not judge those in the media who have made the efforts. In my mind these efforts come from a place of desire to help and create awareness. And yet, these episodes featuring eating disorders could also feature information on getting help at the end of the episodemuch like many episodes do when a character struggles with substance abuse. Additionally, there is a call for research and consultations with doctors, therapists, dietitians and those who are recovered and/or in recovery. It would be an act of denial to ignore this rampant issue, but the acknowledgment and awareness must be thought out and done in a way that offers information and support. To show that there is hope, but that the journey is long. That help is out there and what it might look like. To advertise getting help, which includes a treatment team, and not simply friends. Im not sure Id have recovered without my friends, but they were also not trained professionals who could set boundaries and limits and challenges the way a team could. I need the help of my professional team as well.
In May I had the privilege of attending the Project Heal Gala and hearing both Marti Noxon and Lily Collins discuss their upcoming Netflix film, To the Bone, which has sparked much conversation in the mental health/eating disorder world. While I havent seen the film I have colleagues who have and who reported that this film does in fact highlight the mental and emotional aspects of the disorder. I look to this film with hope and the potential for opportunity while also being aware that the hype around this film includes conversation around the actors weight loss in preparation for the film. I continue to process this while having heard from the actor herself how this weight loss allowed for further pursuit of full recovery.
Call me optimistic or perhaps non-judgmentalas I mentioned I have not yet seen the film. But this article is not truly about one film in particular. It is about calling attention to the craving, the hunger for appropriate, safe portrayal in the media. It is about the ongoing debate and about an approach that all sides value: the need for further understanding, empathy and support for those suffering from eating disorders, and for the truth to be told about them, their loved ones, their journey and the idea that there is hope and full recovery is possible.
By Temimah Zucker, LMSW
Temimah Zucker, LMSW, works as a primary therapist at Monte Nido Manhattan while also working in private practice with individuals and families, and co-facilitating a group for Jewish women in recovery from an eating disorder. Temimah also speaks publicly about the subject with regard to awareness, staff training and programs on body image and self-esteem using her clinical wisdom and personal experience. Temimah lives in New York and has two adorable dogs.
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