"Joker" and Eating Disorders: the Parallel We Need to be Talking About

*Content Warning: eating disorders


When I first watched Joker, the new DC backstory film everyone is talking about, I immediately felt...well… I felt a lot of things. I’ll be honest, I hate superhero movies, so I was extremely skeptical, and was mostly going to appease my boyfriend. Oops. But, I soon found myself sucked into the sad story of this infamous villain, and was surprised to see that it was more about mental illness and the power of people’s words/actions than a superhero and an arch nemesis. 


Joaquin Phoenix, who portrays Arthur Fleck (the man who ultimately transforms into the Joker), did an incredible job of bringing the character to life. I felt his pain. I felt his ecstasy. I was somehow rooting for him, even after all of the awful things that he did. Pheonix’s brilliant acting injected me with an empathy so strong, it was practically surreal. 


Yet through the maniacal laughter, the shaky hands, the obvious quirks, and the deranged dancing, one aspect of Fleck/Joker demanded my attention the most: his weight. 


Throughout the entire movie, Pheonix is extremely emaciated.  His ribs jut out and his arms appear frail, and multiple scenes are filmed to accentuate this. After leaving the theater, the images I saw continued to burn into my brain, especially these. 


I kept up with media buzz about the film; after all, it was so smart and heart-wrenching (in my opinion) that I became mildly obsessed. I wasn’t shocked at all to see that other people had noticed Pheonix’s dramatic physical transformation. In an interview for People, Pheonix discussed the process of losing 52 pounds, as well as the effects it had on his mental state. He mentioned feeling “a kind of fluidity” physically, as well as describing the experience as “empowering, because you’re able to control yourself in that way.”


Reading these interviews made my heart leap… and then drop… because these are feelings that I know all too well. I’m in recovery from anorexia nervosa, a severe eating disorder that has wreaked havoc on my body and mind since I was thirteen years old. I have spent hours, days, years trying to explain to my doctors and therapists why I starved myself (and I’ve spent even longer trying to explain it to my family and friends). Anorexia was exhilarating. Anorexia was adrenaline. Anorexia was my drug. And, like all drugs, the high had to fade if I was ever going to make it out alive. 


What people tell you about is the fatigue, the cramping and the headaches, the feeling of your body giving up on you as you give up on it. But no one talks about the reason we do it anyway… and the truth of the matter is, sometimes having an eating disorder feels gosh darn good


What Joaquin Pheonix is describing is clearly, no doubt an eating disorder. It is not normal to feel so high off of malnutrition. This is why they’re called eating disorders; our brains literally don’t react to food the right away. Losing weight becomes a game that somehow takes precedence over hunger. We become proud of our self-destruction. This, it sounds like, is exactly what Pheonix experienced. 


It’s so important for someone in the Hollywood limelight to be talking about these issues, because so rarely are they portrayed accurately. The way that Pheonix talks about his eating habits is so important because it gives the public a glimpse into the side of eating disorders that no one talks about.


It’s so hard to recover because the thing we are trying to recover from doesn’t seem so scary to us at all. 


The fact that someone who is probably going to be up for an Oscar developed an eating disorder for the role is important for a few reasons:

  1. It shows that these mental illnesses can happen to anyone.

  2. It shows that trying to lose weight, even under the supervision of doctors and nutritionists, is dangerous if done too quickly and in too much of a calorie deficit.

  3. It shows that eating disorders actually distort your way of thinking...which is pretty darn scary!


In recent interviews, Pheonix appears to have gained weight back, and is (hopefully) in a better place. Recovery is always the right choice. My recovery has shown me that the sense of security I got from my eating disorder was false; any happiness or validation was short-lived and unsustainable. I’m way happier now. And I hope Joaquin Pheonix is, too.


National Eating Disorders Association Hotline: (800) 931-2237