Eating Disorders are Not Plot Devices

Thanks to heightened public awareness, terms for psychiatric illness have expanded beyond the medical sphere and entered common parlance. Unfortunately, these words are often exploited as rhetorical tools. People guilty of this mistake usually decorate their speech with medical vocabulary for the dramatic effect. I’m sure you’ve heard someone say something like, “I need everything to be perfect; I’m so OCD.” However, carelessly substituting adjectives for mental illnesses is not just offensive, but belittles such disorders. Additionally, mental ailments are invisible, so people already tend to subordinate them to physical illnesses. However, the particular psychiatric illnesses I’m concerned with have physical manifestations as well. And they are eating disorders.

Our generation has become increasingly body-positive, but much of our progress has been constricted by the entertainment industry. Since mainstream media reproduces the status quo, we expect it to provide a (relatively) faithful representation of real life. This is certainly not the case but we like to believe it contains a kernel of truth. Watch Modern Family and you’ll see how contemporary society has redefined the nuclear family. We tend to internalize these representations – willfully or not – and use them as benchmarks to which we compare our own lives. While societal norms are in constant flux, some of our more defective (and deeply entrenched) mores cannot be uprooted with ease. One of the most heinous sources of distorted information is mainstream television. Specifically, many TV programs still promote unrealistic beauty standards and trivialize eating disorders. Certainly, diverse casting for shows has better represented the real-life spectrum of body types. However, even such ostensible progress is eclipsed by the industry’s hypocrisy.

Scream Queens – everyone’s guilty pleasure – commits such regression. Just a few minutes into the pilot episode, we get the first of many unsavory jeers by Chanel Oberlin. Pointing to the house maid, she says, "That obese specimen of human filth scrubbing bulimia vomit out of the carpet is Ms. Bean." (I've omitted the racial slurs that follow). In one venomous breath, Chanel both fat-shames and undermines eating disorders. The den mother of Kappa Kappa Tau, Chanel flaunts her eating disorder like a designer accessory. Extreme calorie-restriction is normalized under the Oberlin regime. Even the newcomers, Grace and Zayday, shrug off the absence of food in the sorority house. Chanel will maintain a skinny figure by any means, no matter how destructive. Worse yet, she coerces her entourage to emulate her, leading her clan to dine on cotton-balls. Chanel also routinely fat-shames her sisters, ultimately breeding a climate of self-hate inside and outside Kappa House. However, these actions can be misconstrued as the competitive fervor within a sorority, or even coping-mechanisms against the Red Devil’s constant threat. Such dramatic elements thus become the engine of the story while the problem of eating disorders is relegated to the background. As a result, the show's theatrics dilute the severity of the characters’ illnesses, reducing them to mere mechanisms that drive the plot forward.

These offhand comments about eating disorders are especially dangerous in programs targeted to young females. These viewers are not only highly impressionable but the most prone to body-image issues. A survey conducted by the Government of Canada determined that 1.5% of women aged 15 to 24 years cope with an eating disorder. Yet, on Scream Queens, bulimia nervosa is portrayed as a fashionable lifestyle choice. In "Chainsaw," Hester even boasts about her privilege to “hold [Chanel's] hair back on purge nights." Such glamorization of eating disorders distracts the audience from how fatal these illnesses can be. According to NEDIC, anorexia nervosa has the “highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness: with 10% of [those afflicted dying] within 10 years of the onset of the disorder.”

However, these blunders are unsurprising from a show notorious for its offensive content. It’s doubly disappointing when TV programs reputed for being progressive and socially-just are similarly depraved. In The Mindy Project's "Under the Texan Sun," Peter uses Mindy's body-image anxieties to his advantage. He coaxes her to visit him by saying, “You got to come to Texas, bro. The median weight is, like, 300 pounds. They'll think you're anorexic.” The comment was not admonished by the usually body-positive Dr. Lahiri but dismissed as a benign joke. I hero-worship Mindy Kaling but she has let me down with this glaring oversight. Someone who champions self-acceptance as she does shouldn’t have allowed such a gibe on her show.

Eating disorders have also become feminized in the popular imagination, although they are experienced by both females and males. According to NEDIC, the lifetime prevalence of anorexia nervosa is 0.9% in women and 0.3% in men. As for bulimia nervosa, it is 1.5% in women and 0.5% in men. Psychiatric illnesses do not discriminate when choosing their targets. Whether disguised as flattery or hurled as insults, thoughtless comments on eating disorders injure their victims. When said with levity, these remarks suggest to those suffering from AN or BN that their condition is not serious. These remarks amplify the inner voice that reminds them why they hate themselves. These remarks strike like whips.

Sometimes, these shows promote self-love later on, in a threadbare attempt to atone for earlier body-shaming. In "Haunted House," Chanel refuses to “die hungry” for the sake of sexual appeal (this itself mobilizes a lot of thoughts on misogyny, but I’ll leave that issue for another rant). However, this is a hollow gesture on part of the writers. If you’re going to promote body-positivity, why deride eating disorders in the first place?

In the case of Scream Queens, insulting quips are inserted for humour and provocation. On repeated instances, the show successfully incites a visceral reaction from its audience, so these tricks do achieve the desired effect. However, if mocking a mental illness is their way of enlivening the dialogue, scriptwriters ought to return to square one. Offensive comedy is neither innovative or amusing, but exposes the laziness and unskilled writing of the creators. For the astute viewer, such underhanded manoeuvers also reduce a show’s entertainment value. As much as I adore Emma Roberts, I couldn’t progress beyond the first episode of Scream Queens’ second season. These cheap and deplorable tactics are a disservice to the storyline.

Still, viewer attrition shouldn’t be the primary worry for program creators. The television industry must remember that it's not a self-sustaining organism. The spectators are its lifeblood. Although TV is a colossal power, it’s not the only culprit. Equally guilty are magazines, music, advertisements, and social media – such platforms are not only conduits but mediators of information to the masses. Multimedia has a formidable effect on how we behave individually and interact with others. Yet, the health of these industries depend on the health of its audience. A monolith will collapse if its foundation is eroding. So, if big media assumes stewardship over modern culture, it also has the duty to nourish its consumers.

As participants of the culture, we are not entirely blameless either. If we casually bandy medical terms about, we contribute to the problem as well. Mental illness is a solitary battle. Only those embroiled in the plight can understand its horrors. An external observer can never approximate someone else's hardships. However, you can still be an ally by offering support and positivity – free of judgement. Therefore, respectful word choice is not a needless chore but a form of basic human decency. It's the bare minimum. So, if you’re ever tempted to misuse an illness as a pejorative, pause for a moment and think. Is there better word that can take its place? If you’re coming up blank, it’s a clear indication that your comment was probably insulting to begin with. It’s best to chuck that thought into your mental trashcan.

We cannot ignore the impact of words. Language not only constructs our milieu but helps us make sense of it. We are ruled by and partake in this discursive system whether we like it or not. Therefore, it is incumbent on us – just as much as it is on social institutions – to correct any errors before they fester. Mindful speech is the most effective antidote against the spread of misinformation.

If you suffer from an eating disorder, remember that you're not alone. Below are some sources of help. Stay strong.

Sheena's Place

National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC)

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)