Media Portrays Eating Disorders in a Harmful Manner

Avery Cook, Staff Writer

Historically speaking, eating disorders have always been a taboo topic. However, the development of recent media and progressive movements have made this topic overdone. I am a firm advocate for overcoming the societal silence regarding numerous social issues, but I cannot support the way that eating disorders are typically portrayed in modern television and film. How is it that a topic of such importance has become a mockery and a side plot in more than one form of media aimed at impressionable teenagers? 

In nearly every show I’ve watched rated TV-14 or up, there has been a plot line related to disordered eating, or even just a series of jokes that are aimed to make things like not eating comical. For example, in the popular show Glee a plot line about one of the main characters facing an eating disorder was introduced. The teenage girl, Marley, was shown not only starving herself, but also purging. There was an opportunity to make this storyline informative and helpful, but they did the opposite. The entire story was dissolved in a matter of episodes, the climax of the plot being Marley passing out and having a “wake up call”. This was harmful in the sense that it showed only one of the many deadly side effects that result from these dangerous behaviors. I recognize that Glee is satire, but I cannot use that as an excuse for the way that they handled a topic of such importance. They could have very easily left out the entire plot, as it added nothing to the show. It was clearly done for views, a damaging but very familiar trend in television. 

This has been done in countless other shows and movies. Being a teenage girl and seeing these behaviors in things like Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars and Mean Girls  normalized disordered eating habits as a part of the typical teenage life. This is not reasonable nor is it okay. It could be argued that these stories are acceptable from a rating of that level. Then how can you excuse the countless jokes alluding to toxic diet culture in children’s tv and movies? An example of this being in the 2004 Disney movie, A Cinderella Story. There is a scene portraying the stereotypical blonde popular character asking the waitress what their options are that are free of carbs, sugar, and fat. I realize that this sounds miniscule and is clearly a joke, but the effect that constantly hearing these jokes can have isn’t funny at all. This makes extreme diets and practically starving yourself feel like a part of teenage life, especially for the “popular” girls. 

Television and movies do a terrible job at portraying eating disorders. Not only is it clearly a ploy for views, but very rarely is there an accurate depiction of the severity of the things these characters are doing. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, people with eating disorders can experience stomach cramps, infertility, noticeable weight fluctuation, discoloration of teeth and cavities, swelling of feet and impaired immune function. Eating disorders are not just getting skinny, passing out and immediately recovering as they are so often portrayed. Disordered eating needs to be represented accurately, or better yet, not at all in media aimed at children and teenagers. Not only is it offensive to turn these serious illnesses into something comical or an unimportant side plot, but it is extremely damaging and irresponsible to the millions watching.