The Problem with Eating Disorder Portrayals

[Content warning: eating disorders, anorexia, calorie counting]

“I didn’t eat for three days because I wanted to be lovely.” Says Cassie from Skins, a quirky, interesting and eccentric character who was “good in the sack… as long as she’s not hungry.” She was the perfect manic pixie dream girl and a role model for anyone with an eating disorder. With her monologue on how she managed to fool a person sitting directly in front of her into thinking she had eaten, Cassie taught you how to trick people into thinking you were healthy. She was a triggering mess but a person who dozens of young girls strived to be. Netflix’s new original movie, To The Bone, about 20-year-old Ellen (Lily Collins) who suffers from anorexia, has already been criticized for perpetuating these harmful, almost glorified, images of eating disorders. The movie is supposedly based loosely on director Marti Noxon’s own struggle; however, even the trailer was described as triggering to many viewers.

Whilst it is important to talk about and raise awareness of these issues, it needs to be done tastefully, and with extreme caution. Here are a few guidelines which, in future, should be followed carefully when portraying characters with eating disorders in the media, in order to avoid potentially damaging consequences.

  1. Avoid portraying certain images that may trigger or cause a viewer to compare themselves to another. Seems obvious enough, but the images of an emaciated Lily Collins in the To The Bone trailer suggest that Netflix haven’t taken this on board. Whilst she had a nutritionist by her side when she lost the weight, the viewers probably won’t.


  1. Avoid mentioning specific weight. Telling a viewer who may be struggling with disordered eating that said character weighs X amount might cause envy and competition to weigh X amount. It also adds to the idea that in order to be anorexic a person must weigh a certain amount and if they do not they are not a “proper anorexic”- this is bullshit! Whilst the trailer doesn’t mention specific weight, just by looking at Lily Collins it’s clear that the character could be used as a goal to strive towards.


  1. Avoid mentioning how much or how little a person has eaten. This encourages a bad diet, and, just like Cassie, provides ideas and ‘inspiration’ about how to lose weight and, essentially, how to starve yourself. This also applies to mentioning about how many calories are in certain foods. To the Bone lists the various calories in specific foods and then glorifies this habit by making it into a joke. But the reality is that once you start counting calories it’s difficult to stop. It’s not a joke; it’s torture to have in the back of your mind how many calories you’re having when you’re trying to eat your dinner. To this day I could tell you how many are in a slice of toast with butter so please don’t advertise and make it easy to find out in a movie or on a TV show.


  1. Don’t portray the character as a bitch. Don’t do this. Eating disorders consume lives, there is a lot of anxiety and depression surrounding them and so portraying a character as mean and manipulative is just not right. If a person has an eating disorder then news flash they don’t care about what you’re eating or what you look like. They care only about themselves. In fact, chances are they’ll do anything to make sure you’re not in the same boat as them because it’s a really shit boat to be in. Can we please stop acting like people with eating disorders have an ulterior motive to make everyone struggle along with them. This is the same as portraying those who struggle as “manic pixie dream” people. Having an eating disorder doesn’t make you interesting or quirky, its not just another character trait or a something to strive to, and you won’t recover because you’ve fallen in love or because Keanu Reaves is making you walk into the rain to help you understand what it means to be alive!


  1. Avoid providing unrealistic recovery times. So many TV shows are guilty of this; in fact, it’s something Skins did well. Recovering from an eating disorder takes longer than a couple days, weeks – even months! Recovery is as long as a piece of string; you don’t just wake up one morning and you’re better. It’s like that episode of Lizzie McGuire. Miranda is struggling with how she looks and has the same habits as those with an eating disorder, but is cured when Lizzie tells her she is beautiful! That’s not how recovery works; it is a process, and telling someone they’re being silly or saying, “what about me/ do you think I’m fat then!?” is probably one of the worst things you could do. Look at point four again – it’s not about you and it’s no one’s fault. It’s a mental illness, and shouting at a person who is struggling to isn’t going to help. Although, To the Bone is set in a rehab facility and so I’m sure it has to be pretty accurate with recovery times, there are many other media portrayals that aren’t, for example, Lizzie McGuire, Glee or even The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.


Whilst it’s important to talk about this topic and many others surrounding mental health, there is a fine line that, in the trailer alone, To the Bone crosses. It’s hard to portray eating disorders in the media because they are so triggering, and because everyone’s experiences are different. There is no right or wrong answer – there is more to eating disorders than just not eating. But whilst Netflix could have done an amazing job in highlighting something that needs to be spoken about, the movie seems too romantic, as if having an eating disorder is a joke. In some respects, I support the increased visibility of eating disorders in the media, but telling the voice in your head to “fuck off” doesn’t always work. Netflix needs to realise that this isn’t a subject to be taken lightly; what mother bakes their anorexic daughter a cake that says “eat up” Netflix? It’s not funny – it’s just insensitive.

[Help can be found at BEAT]

[Kelly Macarthur – @_kellymacx]

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