What pop culture gets wrong about eating disorders

Emily Blunt played a character who is  "on the edge of anorexia" in <i>Devil Wears Prada</i>.

Emily Blunt played a character who is "on the edge of anorexia" in Devil Wears Prada.

When Beyoncé’s new album dropped last December, her single 'Flawless' almost instantly became the new feminist anthem. But the song that stopped me in my tracks was 'Pretty Hurts', which is about the psychic and emotional cost of trying to adhere to the impossible beauty standards by which women are judged. “Plastic smiles and denial can only take you so far,” she sings, “trynna fix something but you can’t fix what you can’t see: it’s the soul that needs the surgery.” In the video, in which Beyoncé plays a beauty pageant contestant, and that features her kneeling in front of a toilet making herself throw up, is intense.

But it’s also pretty standard for media depictions of eating disorders: the already slender woman trying to become more slender. It’s what we saw in Centre Stage, which is about ballerinas. And it’s what we saw in the most recent season of Dance Academy, which is also about ballerinas. Then there’s Beyoncé’s pageant queen, and the memorable line from Miss Congeniality, in which Sandra Bullock’s character jokes about a fellow pageant contestant “pigging out” on pizza and beer: “It’s light beer, and she’s going to throw it up anyway.”

It’s true that bulimia happens among ballet dancers and beauty queens, and other people whose bodies are their livelihoods. But the reality of bulimia and other eating disorders that involve purging – through vomiting, overexercise, or laxative abuse – is that many people suffering from them don’t look like ballerinas or pageant contestants. Many women with bulimia – about 80% of bulimics are women – are not skinny women trying to stay skinny or trying to lose even more weight. In fact, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, people with bulimia “usually appear to be of average body weight.”

Watching pop culture portrayals of bulimia, you’d never know it. You’d also never know just how grotesque bulimia can be. It turns out that purging laxatives doesn’t make for great TV. It’s hard to give actresses the swollen cheeks that can result from frequent vomiting, while still keeping them appropriately hot. It’s hard to depict the way the stomach acid eats away at the teeth over time.


Depicting over-exercise is easier – plus, you get to show your already-skinny character in tight, stretchy exercise gear – and anorexia is easier still. Just have your character eatnothing. Bulimia is tougher to pull off on screen, in part because, while any eating disorder is brutal in its own way, the brutality of bulimia is obvious. It’s grotesque to do it, and gross to look at it, and as a result, it’s a good deal harder to sell an accurate portrayal of it to an audience, or worse, to glamorise it, than with other eating disorders.

Fans are stars alike are aware of the need for accurate portrayals of bulimia in pop culture. Recently, eatingdisorders awareness and prevention advocates who are also fans of Glee have criticised the show for its portrayal of bulimia, arguing that the show has handled the issue too lightly and that the adults in the show – even the school counsellor, who’s meant to be trained in these issues – has failed to respond appropriately.

And just this month, singer Demi Lovato, who has spoken publicly about her own battle with eating disorders, criticised LadyGaga – who has also been frank about her own history of eating disorders – for staging a show in which a performance artist threw up on her. “As if we didn’t have enough people glamorizing eating disorders already. Bottom line, it’s not ‘cool’ or ‘artsy’ at all,” Lovato tweeted. 

The absence of truthful bulimia narratives in popular culture can make it that much more difficult to recognise bulimia when we see it in real life – a concern that Kaitlin Reilly, of The Gloss, raised recently. By now, we’ve all seen enough anorexia in popular culture to know (or think we know) what it looks like. Bulimia is different: because people with bulimia work so hard to keep their bingeing and purging a secret, it’s harder to spot. We think we can tell if a person is anorexic merely by looking at them (sometimes we’re wrong, and it’s never wise to make assumptions), but bulimia is more complicated.

Accurate and empowering pop culture narratives alone certainly aren’t a panacea. They won’t heal people who have eating disorders, and they won’t stop people from developing them. But popular culture can start conversations about topics that are otherwise hard to discuss, and eating disorders definitely fall into that category.

And for people who have suffered from eating disorders, it can be enormously powerful to see on-screen stories that mirror what we’ve been through – in a way that doesn’t glamourise, or sanitise, or minimise our suffering. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie taught us (and Beyoncé), there is danger in a single story, and there’s even more risk in telling untrue ones.