Glorifying eating disorders

“Look, Patty’s hot!” cries Patty’s former bully immediately after her weight loss reveal in the trailer for Netflix’s Insatiable. It is important for the sake of this article that I point out that Patty does not lose weight due to an eating disorder — she is punched in the face and has her jaw wired shut. Nonetheless, this show’s premise is a prime example of an important problem.

The show may be trying to say something about bullying and could be a satisfying revenge story for viewers who were once victims of body-shaming or bullying. I, however, have one huge problem with this: it depicts dramatic weight loss as the answer to Patty’s problems. She can only seek revenge, be seen as pretty and date boys once she loses a lot of weight (or takes off the ridiculous fat suit).

We need to reassess the situation because frankly, we are still not getting it right.

When someone suffers from an eating disorder, this may well be their fantasy: to lose lots of weight and therefore get everything they want. You think that if only you were smaller, then you’d be more attractive or more likeable. This issue is similar to that of 13 Reasons Why, which was slammed for its portrayal of depression and suicide. Hannah’s suicide acts as a vehicle for her revenge, which is not a message that Netflix should be beaming out to young people. The problem with both shows is that they prey on the innermost desires of some mentally ill or bullied teenagers, prioritising the revenge narrative over any real character development. However, Insatiable is only part of a larger problem.

At least the promotion of disordered eating is wrapped up in the farcical nature of the show, which is generally hard to take seriously in Insatiable, because Netflix has also attempted to make a sombre, gritty depiction of anorexia in To the Bone. However, Netflix being Netflix introduced a romance to the story and hence this consumes the narrative. The film picks and chooses the parts of a deadly and painful illness that fit nicely around a romance plot. They were praised for their depiction of how eating disorders affect the family of the sufferer. Its graphic nature means that it is not wholly romanticising the illness, but it does, however, depict anorexia in a rose-tinted, romantic way and fails to take recovery, or the deeper functioning of such a disease, with much gravity at all. Many viewers called the film triggering.

At least Insatiable actually depicts binge eating disorder realistically, though, in fairness, binge eating disorder is rarely represented in a romanticised way. Patty has a relapse, devouring a cake with her hands, showing how stressors in real life or feeling low can cause someone to binge eat. Though, it is worth noting that when she is fat, she sits watching TV with her friend and binging and so it is depicted less as a problem of disordered eating than a problem of lack of control (or insatiability) when she is fat compared to when she is skinny.

In contrast, the British show My Mad Fat Diary depicts binge eating disorder in a much more nuanced way. Rae also never loses weight, yet she dates boys, finds happiness and betters herself. If you want to watch a show about mental health, body issues, bullying, etc. I would recommend channel 4’s My Mad Fat Diary over any teen Netflix series any day.

We still delight in narratives of weight loss, and I do believe fatphobia fuels our confrontation of issues of weight loss, body image, and disordered eating.

The problem is not exclusively Netflix’s of course, in slightly older shows like Ugly Betty, jokes were often made about people who would not eat or would refuse to eat carbs etc. This was mostly to joke about the shallow artificiality of the characters, namely, the skinny and often cruel people who worked at the fashion magazine. However, this doesn’t romanticise eating disorders so much as make light of them and trivialise the experiences of sufferers down to a few one-line jokes. Disney Channel’s Shake it Up was recently called out for making similar jokes years ago. The problem is cultural and wide- reaching, we can see the romanticising and trivialisation of eating disorders in music, on TikTok and Instagram, and in celebrity culture more broadly. We still delight in narratives of weight loss, and I do believe fatphobia fuels our confrontation of issues of weight loss, body image, and disordered eating.

We need to reassess the situation, because frankly we are still not getting it right.

By April Howard

Illustration: by Rachel Cottrell

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