• Sun. Apr 21st, 2024

Eating Disorders in Film

ByGabriella Blades

Jan 1, 2023
Rows of red velvet seats in a cinema

The problem with superficial dramatisations of mental illness

CW: Eating disorders

Mental illness is notably challenging to portray in film. Depicting the long and painful struggle of such an illness is almost impossible to fit within the time frame of a (give-or-take) 3-hour film. As a result, films choose to dramatise and simplify their portrayals, often resulting in a manifestly inaccurate story. There are quite a few films though that stand out as being effective depictions with examples including the representation of bipolar in Silver Linings Playbook (2012), and schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind (2001). Eating disorders, however, are yet to be presented in an even remotely accurate way. 

The first film to explicitly feature a character with an eating disorder was the 1981 TV movie, The Best Little Girl in the World, which showed a teenage girl suffering from anorexia and bulimia. While the film was positive in starting the conversation and raising awareness about eating disorders, it nevertheless portrayed them superficially – focusing almost entirely on the starvation and weight loss aspects. There is so much more to the illness though – self-hatred, trauma, self-harm, the need for control. Given the increasing amount of discussion and research on eating disorders since 1981, one would think that more recent films would have told a different, more representative story. However, what they still show is a young white middle class woman starving herself — all just the same story, in a different font. We see this through Heather Duke in Heathers (1989), Cher in Clueless (1995), Blair in Gossip Girl (2007), and the Chanels in Scream Queens (2015). The problem with repeating the same story, is that it gives the impression that there is only one story. Eating disorders are so individual, and people of all genders, races, and ages can be sufferers. 

Another problem with these portrayals is that they seem to present eating disorders as fleeting character traits that aren’t taken seriously. This suggests to vulnerable audiences that such behaviour is normal, when it is far from it. The Netflix film To the Bone (2017) arguably presented eating disorders in a different, darker light. We follow 20-year-old Ellen as she goes through an in-patient program to treat her anorexia. According to critics, the film effectively highlighted the complexity of the illness, as well as giving audiences more of an understanding of it – for example, by drawing parallels between eating disorders and addictions. However, it still fails to connote the illness’ severity – it focuses superficially on calories and weight, and Ellen’s decision to recover at the end comes almost out of the blue, when this is nowhere near the reality. 

To the Bone, like countless other media portrayals, also contributes to the glamorisation of eating disorders. While Ellen is not what we would traditionally associate with “glamorous”, she is still portrayed as the stereotypical “cool girl” of 2017 – she wears eyeliner, biker boots and is popular on Tumblr. Not to mention that she is portrayed by model and actress Lily Collins. The constant worry with this is that vulnerable audiences might see these films, and look up to the characters, wanting to imitate their behaviour.  This does not help society in general with understanding the illness as something serious and often deadly. 

Overall, there is no exception when it comes to eating disorders — filmmakers need to try harder to give them an accurate portrayal. With more research and thought, reality can be displayed accurately in fiction. At the moment, however, it seems hard to believe that something so widely discussed is so little understood.

Image “Electric Cinema Screen 1” by jhmostyn is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.