The villainization of eating disorders in popular culture
While movies like Mean Girls and Clueless and shows like Gossip Girl may have come out years ago, a young generation of girls are discovering them for the first time thanks to Netflix, and the new Mean Girls musical is taking Broadway by storm. Who can’t quote famous lines like “She doesn’t even go here,” or “You’re a virgin who can’t drive” to their friends? Personally, Blair Waldorf is still one of my role models.
While there is a lot to love about all of these works, it’s undeniable that some of these now-iconic female characters are also problematically depicted. Take the popular but vicious Regina George in Mean Girls, the spoiled but well-meaning protagonist Cher Horowitz in Clueless, and ambitious, cunning Blair Waldorf (Queen B of the Upper East Side) in Gossip Girl. These characters are all as beautiful, wealthy, self-centered, and ambitious as they come. There’s also another trait they all share, however, a trait that seems to be a key element of the “popular girl” trope: signs of have an eating disorder.
Of course, the words “anorexia” and “bulimia” aren’t actually stated or even addressed in this media; those topics are often reserved for serious Lifetime movies. Eating disorder behaviors and mind-sets — like calorie counting, weight obsession, and constant dieting — are deeply coded in each of these characters. In Mean Girls, Regina becomes obsessed with losing weight to the point that she asks people around her about the nutritional value of everything she eats, eventually resorting to eating nothing but diet bars because she is told they’ll help her lose weight. In Clueless, Cher is also fixed on carbs and calories. She calls herself a “heifer” and berates herself for eating. In Gossip Girl, Blair is shown engaging in bulimic behavior, although she is never called bulimic and the behavior is never addressed. In one episode, Blair eats an entire apple pie to cope with her emotions, then stares back at her reflection with a long hollow stare.
These eating disorder behaviors are not intended to make the characters who possess them sympathetic to the viewer, however, but instead to highlight just how vain and self-absorbed they are. This dieting behavior is presented as an apparent foil to the “cool girls” who eat burgers and don’t wear makeup. But when we buy into the idea that eating disorders are weaknesses or points of humor, we reinforce harmful stereotypes about a reality that many people have to fight against every day.
Eating disorders, or at least the mentality and cultural messaging that can spur them, are incredibly common. Impossible beauty standards have been forced onto the general population, especially women, since we were children. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), “By age 6, girls especially start to express concerns about their own weight or shape. 40-60% of elementary school girls (ages 6-12) are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat. This concern endures through life.” And yet, we often laugh at this illness and make a joke out of this mentality in our media. For example, in Mean Girls the protagonist, Cady, gives Regina a fattening candy bar, but tells her they are diet bars so Regina will gain weight. This setup is supposed to be a joke; the audience is supposed to laugh at Regina when she desperately wants, but fails, to fit into a size 0 dress. Regina is the movie’s villain, so we believe she “deserves” the punishment of gaining weight. On the other hand, as a popular girl, everyone is so obsessed with Regina’s physical appearance that it would be almost impossible for her to not have a morphed view of her body. Imagine how utterly destroyed you would feel if you were so desperate to lose weight you’d do anything, including starving yourself by eating meal replacement bars, only to gain weight — especially because someone else was trying to punish you? This movie effectively weaponizes women’s body image issues; gaining weight is a punishment, the enforcement of that result an attack. Young girls come away with the lesson that being skinny is the goal, but should they become devoted to that quest, then they are villains and worthy of ridicule.
Not only is it upsetting to depict this common illness as a punchline, but it is also irresponsible considering that eating disorders have a higher mortality rate than other mental illnesses. Every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder. But these characters are not depicted as suffering from an illness. Instead, Regina, Cher, and Blair’s eating disorders are all depicted as personality flaws; as a side effect of being too vain, too self-absorbed, too privileged. All of these characters are ambitious, driven women who will do whatever it takes to reach their goals. They strive for perfection in all aspects of their lives, so their need for “perfection” when it comes to their weight and body is relatively unsurprising. Regina’s perfectionism is evident in her quest to be the most popular girl in school. She even creates a set of rules for her “followers” to abide by; she dictates things like who can wear hooped earrings and when, and that they must all wear pink every Wednesday as a means to find to find some measure of control. Cher searches for perfection in finding a happily-ever-after for both herself and the people she’s matchmaking, but also in herself. She focuses so much on her hair and outfits, and when either doesn’t achieve the desired effect, she wonders if the problem is her. Blair is the embodiment of perfectionism, completely driven in everything does. From trying to get into Yale, to becoming the most popular girl in school, to even trying to plan the perfect way to lose her virginity, she has her whole life planned out. When these things don’t go as planned, she falls apart.
Finally, these movies and shows not only inaccurately depict the causes and reality of eating disorders, but skew who suffers from them as well. At least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from eating disorders in the U.S. They can happen to anyone, yet our media generally only depicts one type of eating disordered person in the media: the thin, white, conventionally beautiful Reginas, Chers, and Blairs. We don’t see people of different races, genders, ages, sexual orientations, or social classes have eating disorders, and this makes it seem like eating disorders can only happen to one type of person — and if you’re not that person, you probably don’t have one.
Watching these characters while I was struggling with my own eating disorders, I wondered if my own tendency to have a full-blown panic attack when I gained a single pound or to see only bad things when I looked in the mirror made me vain and narcissistic. I dieted regularly, but secretly so no one could roll their eyes at my desire to lose a few pounds. I worried that if people knew, I would become the butt of a joke like Regina, Cher, and Blair. Because I wasn’t as wealthy, pretty, thin, or as popular as these women, I also questioned if I could have an eating disorder at all. The shame I felt about my fixation with food and my body, and my inability to relate to the little representation of these issues that I saw, led to me taking years to realize that my eating disorder wasn’t a personal failing but a mental illness.
Ultimately, our media needs to do better at depicting eating disorders not as shallow behaviors, but as a serious mental illness that can happen to anyone and can be deadly. The media needs to show people with eating disorders as real people. When people are dying, accurate and respectful representation may be the only thing that can save lives.
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