Does Media Perpetuate Eating Disorder Stereotypes?

With the tragic passing of Big Brother UK star Nikki Grahame after a long battle of anorexia on Friday April 9th, 2021, Eating Disorders are once again in the media spotlight. This news headline has been trending all over Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok since the news of Nikki’s passing became public the day after she lost her battle with her Eating Disorder.

This led me to think about how Eating Disorders are often described in the media – or how they are often not portrayed. Although no two battles are the same, the media has historically documented and focused on women’s battles with anorexia and bulimia, leaving out other genders and the myriad of so many other Eating Disorders.

For the Love of Nancy is a documentary directed by Paul Schneider that came out in 1994. This was a groundbreaking film as it was one of the first films documenting a woman’s battle with anorexia. This film does an excellent job depicting the mental and physical anguish anorexia can cause, as well as the struggles that families ensue as they desperately seek treatment for their loved one. When viewing this film, it was triggering as it showed Nancy close to death refusing life-saving medical treatment at times. I wonder if a film like this should warn the viewers of the content they are about to see. I also can’t help but ponder if this documentary would have received the same acceptance in the media if it were about an ethnic male struggling with a Binge-Eating Disorder.

Another film similar to For the Love of Nancy is the 2006 documentary Thin, directed by Lauren Greenfield, that follows four white womens’ journeys as they seek treatment for their anorexia or bulimia. This film provides an honest look inside the battles one may face whilst in treatment, but has a few points that need to be addressed. The first is that this film may be triggering for those suffering as it shows explicit disordered eating behaviours and extremely ‘thin’ women. For those with Eating Disorders, this can be extremely distressing as Eating Disorders can be highly competitive and comparative, leaving me with the question as to whether or not this documentary should also have had a trigger warning on it. Another downfall to this film is that it can be viewed as very one sided – the side of the white, cisgendered female struggling with anorexia or bulimia. This film does not include alternative perspectives or insights into the lives of people from different walks of life who are suffering from other Eating Disorders such as the most common – Binge-Eating Disorder. Although this film does a great job at what it set out to document, it may perpetuate the stereotype that Eating Disorders only affect ‘thin’ white females which is very untrue.

For those who haven’t heard of the 2017 Netflix movie To The Bone directed by Martu Boxon. It is simply about an emancipated young white female’s unusual journey seeking treatment for her anorexia. As derived from the name of the film, the main character is merely skin and bones which can be hard to watch for some. This film stands out against the two previous ones mentioned as it also depicts a young white male’s journey to recovery as well. However, this film only highlights anorexia and bulimia and does not depict the struggles those suffer from other Eating Disorders. As triggering and controversial as this film has been, I wonder if it should have a higher viewing rating/be less accessible to younger people who have a Netflix account.

Have you noticed similarities in the three films mentioned above? Take a moment to reflect on this question: When you think of Eating Disorders, who comes to mind? For many, it will be ‘skinny’, white females similar to all those battles depicted in the films above. This is often an engrained stereotype perpetuated not only in films, but in magazines, billboards and celebrities – for example Nikki Grahame. Media consumers and producers need to recognize how harmful this stereotype can be as it can diminish the struggles of those who don’t fit inside this narrow view of Eating Disorders.

There is a positive change though that I want to mention. Two currently popular TV shows are breaking the mold, though the mention of Eating Disorders are not the focal points of either. The first TV show is ‘This Is Us’  which is popular on CTV, NBC and Netflix. After a few dramatically successful seasons, we get insight into Kate Pearson’s (Chrissy Metz) life-long battle with Binge Eating Disorder. This show does a great job showcasing Kate’s struggle with health, weight, self-esteem and control over food in the more recent seasons. This is a welcomed perspective as it depicts the trials of someone’s battle with an Eating Disorder that is not often portrayed in the media.

The second show that is challenging the typical Eating Disorder stereotype perpetuated in the media is ‘New Amsterdam’. This show, similar to the previous one, is currently airing new episodes on CTV, NBC and has previous seasons on Netflix. In the end of season three of this medical drama series, we gain hints into the potential struggles of psychiatrist Dr. Iggy Frome (Tyler Labine). It isn’t until early on in season 4 that Dr. Frome’s struggles with his Binge-Eating Disorder are solidified. Despite being a male, head psychiatrist at a world class hospital, Dr. Frome struggles with Binge-Eating and is in the cycle of bingeing followed by restriction. It isn’t until one of his close co-workers recognizes that he is very weak and light headed that his Eating Disorder comes to light. As seen in real life, Dr. Frome tried to hide his Eating Disorder as he was filled with shame. In the midst of this season, we are experiencing the beginning of his road to recovery which started with acceptance and seeking professional help. Without a doubt, this portrayal of a male professional with Binge-Eating Disorder is a very refreshing change that challenges the cis-gendered anorexia stereotype in the media. To find out how his journey progresses, we will have to wait and watch!

In the end, I hope this encourages you to critically analyze how Eating Disorders are often portrayed in the media and the pros and cons of such portrayals. As well as challenge your own stereotypes/perceptions of Eating Disorders and who they affect (which by the way, is everyone and anyone).