Does Media Representation Do More Harm Than Good?
*Trigger warning: eating disorders, body dysmorphia
Over the recent years, Hollywood, authors, and designers have been working towards body positivity and inclusivity in their projects and campaigns. Although progress has been seen, it is minimal, and mostly, isolated to the fashion industry. We have amazing examples like Rihanna’s SAVAGE X FENTY lingerie line as well as bigger brands like Dove and Levi’s that advocate for body positivity. However, when it comes to the popular culture we absorb everyday, there is harm when representation is done incorrectly. We have already discussed the dangers of diet culture (See: https://www.dhnusmcgill.com/single-post/why-is-diet-culture-so-toxic ) as well the effect of influencers in promoting diet products (See: https://www.dhnusmcgill.com/single-post/2020/02/24/should-influencers-influence-our-eating-habits ). The more subtle dangers against our eating habits can be found in the books we read, the shows and movies we watch, that claim representation by having an overweight character, but do not treat the trope with care. Misrepresenting people that suffer with weight fluctuations or making false claims around eating disorders can exacerbate the toxicity of diet culture without even realizing it.
We have shows like Pretty Little Liars (character: Hanna Marin) and Insatiable (character: Patty) where the main character used to be overweight. They used to be bullied for the way they looked; they were insecure; a side character in their own lives. The show only starts when they are now thin, confident, desired, but their overweight past still a sword of Damocles hanging over their head. It’s a past they never come to terms with or accept. This is a trope that has been done to death without ever improving. Books like ‘True Color’ by Kristin Hannah use demeaning vocabulary, and showcase the skinny characters as the better ones. And there always seems to be a stress-eating scene that misrepresents and even belittles the reality of eating disorders. Eating disorders, especially binge-purge cycles, are very complex and are often characterized by constant fears regarding food and eating. Many people that suffer from eating disorders have a hard time going through their remissions without relapsing (1). Eating disorders are not the same for any one person, yet all the shows represent it as one thing.
Furthermore, food is not the only reason a person can gain weight. There are numerous socioeconomic, professional, genetic, hormonal factors and more, that can affect a person’s weight. However, studies and overall interactions in society show time and time again that people tend to blame weight fluctuations, mainly weight gain, on factors that are in a person’s control. For example, how much they eat and how much they exercise. One study was even able to find a relationship, in some cases, where a person’s negative beliefs on weight gain could predict their BMI (2). Yet when we watch movies and TV shows, even when the overweight character is building their confidence and the plot treats them well (see Kat from HBO’s Euphoria), their weight gain can always be traced back to some food related event.
Our relationship with food and weight, our eating habits, and our perception of people based on their body types are not only extremely complex, but also highly impressionable. It’s important to understand that everyone has their own experience and our nutrition has to be right for us. There is no universal rule. We just have to remain wary of the pop culture we consume, and treat our minds and bodies with care as best as we can.
If you are in trouble, or know a friend that might be, here are some links that might help:
National Eating Disorder Helpline https://nedic.ca/contact/
Anorexie et boulimie Quebec https://anebquebec.com/en/
List of hotlines provided by ami Quebec https://amiquebec.org/eating-disorders/
McGill Eating Disorder Resource/Support Centre https://ssmu.ca/resources/eating-disorders/
Eating Disorder Clinic Montreal https://cliniquebaca.com/en/
1.Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. DSM-5 Changes: Implications for Child Serious Emotional Disturbance [Internet]. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2016 Jun. Table 19, DSM-IV to DSM-5 Anorexia Nervosa Comparison. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519712/table/ch3.t15/
2.Dryer, R. and N. Ware (2014). "Beliefs about causes of weight gain, effective weight gain prevention strategies, and barriers to weight management in the Australian population." Health Psychol Behav Med2(1): 66-81.