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Modern Day Freak Shows: How Eating Disorders Continue to be Used as Entertainment
From carnivals, to TV, to TikTok, when will eating disorder entertainment stop?
Eating disorders are responsible for more loss of life than any other mental health condition. According to the mental health care provider Priory, eating disorders are becoming increasingly more common and have become a widespread problem across the UK and worldwide. As a result, it’s unsurprising that the media frequently attempts to portray the devastating realities of eating disorders in order to raise awareness and better the public’s understanding. But ultimately, are the representations doing more harm than good?
The first film to be primarily focused on a character with an eating disorder was in 1981 and was entitled The Best Little Girl in the World. It follows the story of seven-teen-year-old Casey Powell, who develops anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa as a result of feeling rejected by her family, wanting to look like models and being told by her ballet teacher that she needs to lose weight. As the develops, we see Casey taking diet pills and being hospitalised before the ‘happy’ ending of her eating an ice cream.
More than 40 years on, depictions of eating disorders within media have not seen a drastic change. Shows such as Supersize vs Superskinny (2008-2014), To the Bone (2017), Overshadowed (2017), Feed (2007) and Insatiable (2018-2019), just to name a few, were all made with the intention of educating and raising awareness. Instead, many of them are guilty of attempting to entertain the audience with oversimplified and glamorous portrayals of serious illness.
Supersize vs Superskinny was a popular Channel 4 series which documented medically overweight and underweight people trying to change their diets. The documentary style show attempts to factually portray the realities of eating disorders by showing the stories of real people rather than fictional characters. However, it still proved extremely controversial.
The show begins by displaying the “supersize” overweight contestants lined up next to the “super skinny” underweight contestants in their underwear. The host, Dr Christian Jensen, then pairs up the individuals with their polar opposite and takes them to a “feeding clinic”, where they are forced to swap diets and criticise each other’s choices. By swapping diets, the overweight contestant is made to feel severe hunger while the underweight contestant is force fed to the point of discomfort, both physically and emotionally. The contestants are sent away with a new “healthy” diet plan and when they return, they are expected to have transformed into the ideal body size.
Throughout the show we are also given an insight into the latest fad diets and fitness trends by co-host Anna Richardson. Which further promotes the ‘ideal’ and ‘perfect’ body type which everybody is expected to strive to achieve, while shaming those who don’t have it.
The last episode of Supersize vs Superskinny aired almost a decade ago, and although it is still available to watch on streaming services, you would think society has progressed leaps and bounds in its attitudes towards eating disorders since then. But you would be wrong.
61% of 18–24-year-olds in the UK use social media as a source of entertainment. A quick search on TikTok quickly reveals that eating disorder entertainment hasn’t stopped, it’s just moved, and now it’s more accessible than ever.
This isn’t the first time that the way we watch people with eating disorders has changed. From around 1829, travelling freak show carnivals presented “living skeletons”, “fat men” and “fat ladies” as abnormal freaks of nature in order to entertain the general public. They were often paired up and positioned next to each other onstage to demonstrate one another’s “extreme”.
Due to being public displays of discrimination, freak shows are banned in many parts of the world. But they still exist. But now they are on our TVs and phone screens.
Much like traditional freak shows, and Supersize vs Superskinny, TikTok has become host to a whole array of videos showcasing disordered eating. Videos entitled ‘what I eat in a day’ or ‘WIEIAD’ are among the most popular on the platform. In the last seven days alone the hashtag for “WIEIAD Weight-loss” has received more 500K views in the UK.
TikTok does recognise the potential impact that these videos can have, so when searching for them an automated pop up appears at the top of the screen stating “you are more than your weight” followed by some advice on where to find help. Nevertheless, as you scroll through the never-ending stream of videos you will most likely see one of two things. The most popular videos consist of either a “smaller” sized creator showing what they eat, or a “larger” sized creator doing the same thing.
While the comparison of diets is not directly made by the creators themselves, the videos do appear side-by-side. Many videos show the measurements and calorie counts of foods, and creators who recognise that they have an eating disorder will often disclose it with captions such as “binge eating” or “recovery” with relevant trigger warning hashtags in attempt to protect vulnerable viewers.
The majority of these creators are not intending to cause harm, and instead want to accurately reflect the diet that someone of their body size has. But whether they like it or not, they have become an entertainment source, with comments flooding in with viewers giving their opinions on the creator’s diet or body size. Some have become a source of inspiration and others are ridiculed for what they eat and how they look.
It must be recognised that not all of the creators filming these videos have eating disorders. However, displaying extreme body sizes as a source of entertainment and/or commercial gain is by nature a freak show.
Ultimately, in today’s progressive society there is no excuse for romanticising illness, promoting body types, and finding entertainment in those with complex mental health conditions. By watching these representations, awe are adding fuel to the fire and allowing them to continue, we may as well be buying a front row ticket to a modern day freak show. It’s time to change the channel.