As someone who has suffered with my own mental health issues for many years now, I am all for, and always will fight for more awareness of mental health problems. It’s vital that people can open up and talk about their issues openly without facing a stigma, and it’s vital that people open their minds more to understand what those who suffer are going through. One of the best ways to raise such awareness is through the media, and in recent years mental health has become a more common issue explored within TV and movies.
Recently, ‘13 Reasons Why’, a show which focused on a teenager’s suicide, streamed on Netflix, and coming soon is ‘To the Bone’, a show focusing on eating disorders. Both shows have received very mixed reviews and extensive media coverage, leading to the question, when is it raising awareness of mental health? And when it is simply glorifying and glamourising it?
First, let’s focus on ‘To the Bone’, which focuses on a teenage girl who suffers with an ED, and eventually leaves home to receive treatment. At first glance, it looks to be a good effort to raise awareness and break the stigma, but there’s a lot of problems with the show. The biggest no-no for me is the unnecessary inclusion of a romantic storyline, fuelling the idea for many that eating disorders and mental health problems in general bring romance, and make you more desirable to others.
I can tell you from experience, depression is not romantic, worrying about your eating is not romantic, and struggling with your existence is not romantic. Another problem is that the big stereotype of eating disorders and anorexia is that the person suffering is underweight, small, and fragile. The truth is that anyone can suffer with it at any weight, and most of the time it’s overweight people that are struggling more often. To the Bone is about a young, white, underweight girl, which only leads to others that don’t fit ‘that role’ feeling they don’t matter.
Lily Collins who plays the lead has suffered with ED in the past, and was asked by producers to lose weight for the role! That is highly dangerous, unnecessary, and an absolute slap in the face to those who don’t meet the stereotypical image of an anorexia sufferer. Another problem with constantly casting the stereotype is that it can very easily become inspiration for ED sufferers, or ‘thinspiration’ as its commonly called on the Web. There’s a reason why Cassie from Skins is so popular on sites like Tumblr, because she fits the classical role. If you search these sites now, you will already see lines from To the Bone and stills from the trailer being used as inspiration, not for a happy ending, but for the goal so many wish to look like.
A common trait among ED sufferers is trying to mimic, and trigger themselves into being better at losing weight. Many anorexics will watch videos and documentaries to pick up habits, and this is where the ED stereotype is a big issue. Numbers can also be a big problem: weight lost/gained, meals skipped, calories eaten, and To the Bone heavily features all of this. We’ve already seen the issues of mimicking through 13 Reasons Why, as there have already been cases of teenagers copying the lead characters suicide story. What these shows tend to do is romanticise, glorify, and trigger, without evening raising simple facts and awareness.
These dramas also tend to not highlight that suffering with mental health issues is actually very boring. Most days, weeks, and months just drift by whilst you suffer alone. There’s no romance to mental health, no wild adventures, no inspirational music in the background; it’s very lonely, isolating, and most of the time there feels like there’s no end in sight. The problem is, that wouldn’t sell, and people wouldn’t watch, so producers must jazz it all up. I think that’s why soaps tend to handle these issues better than TV series and movies do, as they are broadcast four times a week, and can focus on the daily challenges mental health brings.
I think it’s great to see mental health being broadcast more, more stories being told, more awareness being raised; but right now, it is too one dimensional. The characters are too similar, the settings too pretty and romanticised, and the true facts not presented. More must be done to raise awareness, and not to glorify what ruins people’s lives.