Eating Disorders on Popular TV Shows

Glee fans have spent this season getting to know a new character named Marley. Marley is a sophomore who falls prey to the cruel torment of a fellow Glee club member, Kitty. Kitty convinces Marley that, in order to succeed in auditions, she needs to lose weight. Succumbing to Kitty’s pressure, Marley begins purging and abusing laxatives—both symptoms of bulimia nervosa. Catherine Weingarten recently wrote an article, “Glee’s Harmful Portrayal of Eating Disorders,” in response to this new plotline. She discusses how Glee downplays the seriousness of eating disorders and fails to provide any type of statement to highlight the associated dangers at the end of the episodes. The show represents bulimia nervosa as a choice that Marley makes for a short time, instead of being a very dangerous, all-encompassing psychological disorder.

Although I am not the biggest Gleek, I am guilty of catching up on Gossip Girl episodes during my breaks from school. Reading Weingarten’s article made me remember that Gossip Girl also addressed the topic of eating disorders. Blair (a New York socialite, played by Leighton Meester) suffered from bulimia nervosa during several of the show’s seasons, and viewers are told that she was treated. Blair’s eating habits (including overeating during stressful time periods) and weight concerns are mentioned in various episodes of the program. Characters with disordered eating, eating disorders, and body-image issues have definitely been the topic of other popular television programs as well. This trend makes me worried for the impression that these characters will have on younger girls and the likely lack of awareness they may have regarding the severity of such disorders. I agree with one of Weingarten’s other points: without being particularly sensitive to how these topics are addressed, television shows may misrepresent these disorders.

The topic of eating disorders likely strikes a chord with many viewers who may be struggling personally or know someone who is struggling with an eating disorder. Knowing that such a vast audience watches Glee, I am disappointed that the production staff did not carefully consider how they addressed the topic prior to airing the episodes. I would assume teachable moments on television programs intended for entertainment purposes are probably few and far between. Choosing to include the topic of eating disorders could have been an excellent opportunity for the show to teach its viewers about the seriousness of the eating disorders and to encourage viewers to help any affected friends or family members to seek help. When TV producers want to include sensitive subject material in their scripts, I would hope that they would want to embrace their power to reach (and possibly teach!) such a wide audience. My gut feeling is that the production team is misinformed or unaware of the nature of eating disorders. I hope that Glee and other television programs will learn from responses to the show’s depiction of eating disorders and will exercise mindfulness during their portrayal of sensitive topics in later shows. If you would like to call attention to this or other harmful (or beneficial) messages in the media concerning body image and beauty, please report to the NEDA media watchdog program. Go to this link!

If you would like to contact Fox about this issue, we suggest that you leave a message on Fox Broadcasting’s viewer comment line. The number is 310-369-3066. You can also write a letter to: Fox Broadcasting Co., P.O. Box 900, Beverly Hills, Calif., 90212.

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By: Annie Altschul